Children and Electronic Media

Children and
Electronic Media
V OLUM E 18 NUMBER 1 SPRIN G 2008
3
Introducing the Issue
11
Trends in Media Use
39
Media and Young Children’s Learning
63
Media and Attention, Cognition, and School Achievement
87
Media and Children’s Aggression, Fear, and Altruism
119
Online Communication and Adolescent Relationships
147
Media and Risky Behaviors
181
Social Marketing Campaigns and Children’s Media Use
205
Children as Consumers: Advertising and Marketing
235
Children’s Media Policy
A COLLABORATION OF THE WOODROW WILSON SCHOOL OF PUBLIC AND INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS AT
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY AND THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION
The Future of Children seeks to translate high-level research into information that is useful
to policymakers, practitioners, and the media.
The Future of Children is a collaboration of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and
International Affairs at Princeton University and the Brookings Institution.
Senior Editorial Staff
Journal Staff
Sara McLanahan
Editor-in-Chief
Princeton University
Director, Center for Research on
Child Wellbeing, and William S. Tod
Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs
Elisabeth Hirschhorn Donahue
Associate Editor
Princeton University
Ron Haskins
Senior Editor
Brookings Institution
Senior Fellow and Co-Director, Center on
Children and Families
Christina Paxson
Senior Editor
Princeton University
Director, Center for Health and Wellbeing,
and Hughes-Rogers Professor of Economics
and Public Affairs
Brenda Szittya
Managing Editor
Princeton University
Julie Clover
Outreach Director
Brookings Institution
Lisa Markman
Outreach Director
Princeton University
Cecilia Rouse
Senior Editor
Princeton University
Director, Education Research Section, and
Theodore A. Wells ’29 Professor of
Economics and Public Affairs
Isabel Sawhill
Senior Editor
Brookings Institution
Senior Fellow, Cabot Family Chair, and
Co-Director, Center on Children and Families
The Future of Children would like to thank the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Annie E.
Casey Foundation, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, and the
John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for their generous support.
ISSN: 1550-1558
ISBN: 978-0-9814705-0-4
Board of Advisors
Jeanne Brooks-Gunn
Columbia University
Charles N. Kahn III
Federation of American Hospitals
Peter Budetti
University of Oklahoma
Marguerite Sallee Kondracke
America’s Promise—The Alliance for Youth
Judith Feder
Georgetown University
Rebecca Maynard
University of Pennsylvania
William Galston
Brookings Institution
University of Maryland
Lynn Thoman
Corporate Perspectives
Jean B. Grossman
Public/Private Ventures
Princeton University
Heather B. Weiss
Harvard University
Amy Wilkins
Education Reform Now
Kay S. Hymowitz
Manhattan Institute for Policy Research
The views expressed in this publication do not necessarily represent the views of the Woodrow
Wilson School at Princeton University or the Brookings Institution.
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V OLUME 18
NUMBER 1
S PR IN G 2008
Children and Electronic Media
3
Introducing the Issue by Jeanne Brooks-Gunn and Elisabeth
Hirschhorn Donahue
11
Trends in Media Use by Donald F. Roberts and Ulla G. Foehr
39
Media and Young Children’s Learning by Heather L. Kirkorian,
Ellen A. Wartella, and Daniel R. Anderson
63
Media and Attention, Cognition, and School Achievement
by Marie Evans Schmidt and Elizabeth A. Vandewater
87
Media and Children’s Aggression, Fear, and Altruism
by Barbara J. Wilson
119
Online Communication and Adolescent Relationships
by Kaveri Subrahmanyam and Patricia Greenfield
147
Media and Risky Behaviors by Soledad Liliana Escobar-Chaves
and Craig A. Anderson
181
Social Marketing Campaigns and Children’s Media Use
by W. Douglas Evans
205
Children as Consumers: Advertising and Marketing
by Sandra L. Calvert
235
Children’s Media Policy by Amy B. Jordan
www.futureofchildren.org
Introducing the Issue
Introducing the Issue
Jeanne Brooks-Gunn and Elisabeth Hirschhorn Donahue
M
edia technology is an
integral part of children’s
lives in the twenty-first
century. The world of
electronic media, however, is changing dramatically. Television,
which dominated the media world through
the mid-1990s, now competes in an arena
crowded with cell phones, iPods, video
games, instant messaging, interactive multiplayer video games, virtual reality sites, Web
social networks, and e-mail.
American children are exposed to all these
media and more. The vast majority of children
have access to multiple media. Virtually all
have television and radio in their homes, and
half have a television in their bedrooms. Most
have Internet and video game access, and a
significant portion has a cell phone and an
iPod. The numbers joining social networking
websites like Facebook and MySpace grow
daily. Technological convergence, a hallmark
of media use today, enables youth to access
the same source from different, often portable, media platforms. Thanks to convergence, a teen can watch a television show on
a computer long after the show has aired on
television and can use a cell phone to surf the
Internet. Children, particularly adolescents,
thus have almost constant access to media—
often at times and in places where adult
supervision is absent. As a result, America’s
young people spend more time using media
than they do engaging in any single activity
other than sleeping.
What do researchers know about how children
and youth use electronic media and about
how that use influences their lives? Is media
technology a boon, one that leaves American
children today better educated, more socially
connected, and better informed than any
previous generation of the nation’s children?
Or is it, as many voices warn, a hazard for
vulnerable children—an endless source of
advertising, portrayals of violence, and
opportunities for dangerous encounters with
strangers and possible exposure to pornography? The quantity and quality of research on
these questions are uneven. Researchers have
amassed a vast amount of solid information on
older technologies, such as television and
movies. But investigations of newer technologies and of the novel uses of existing technologies are far fewer in number and more
www.futureofchildren.org
Jeanne Brooks-Gunn is the Virginia and Leonard Marx Professor of Child Development and Education at Teachers College and the
College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University. Elisabeth Hirschhorn Donahue is associate editor of The Future of Children
and a lecturer at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
VOL. 18 / NO. 1 / S PR ING 2008
3
Jeanne Brooks-Gunn and Elisabeth Hirschhorn Donahue
speculative in their findings. The pervasiveness of electronic media in the lives of
children makes it important for policymakers,
educators, parents, and advocates to know
what researchers have discovered, as well as
what questions remain unanswered.
This volume focuses on the most common
forms of electronic media in use today and
analyzes their influence on the well-being of
children and adolescents. To address questions
raised by the proliferation of new electronic
media, we invited a panel of experts to review
the best available evidence on whether and
how exposure to different media forms is
linked with such aspects of child well-being as
school achievement, cognition, engagement in
extracurricular activities, social interaction
with peers and family, aggression, fear and
anxiety, risky behaviors, and healthy lifestyle
choices. Because how children fare in each of
these areas is influenced by multiple forms of
media and even by interactions between
different media, we organized the volume by
children’s outcomes rather than by media
platforms. We also asked the authors of the
articles in the volume to consider evidence for
children and adolescents separately and to
examine whether media use differs for boys
and girls and for more and less advantaged
children. Finally, we asked the authors to pay
special attention to the quality of the studies
on which their conclusions are based. The
studies range from state-of-the-art randomized
design experiments, to carefully done observational studies, to suggestive but less conclusive
associational studies. Our goal has been to
separate the scientific evidence from unsubstantiated claims and rhetoric that the topic
has often generated.
What We Have Learned
One of the central points of Marshall McLuhan’s widely popular 1964 book, Understanding Media, was that the content of electronic
4
THE F U T U R E O F C H I L DR EN
media, its “message,” is simply beside the
point—that in electronic media, unlike print
media, “the medium is the message.” This
volume comes to a rather different conclusion. Content, it turns out, is critical to how
media influence children. Key findings from
each of the articles in the volume follow.
Children’s Use of Electronic Media
How do children and youth access available
media today, and how has their media use
changed in the past twenty-five years? The
first task in investigating the effects of
electronic media is to examine what forms of
media children and youth use and how and
how often they use them. Donald Roberts, of
Stanford University’s Department of Communication, and Ulla Foehr, a media research
consultant specializing in children and media
use, lead off the volume by presenting data
on media use and comparing current and past
patterns of use. Where possible, they break
down access and use trends by gender, age,
and socioeconomic and racial differences.
One key finding is that children’s simultaneous use of different media, or media multitasking, is at an all-time high. That is, youngsters routinely have more than one media
source operating at a time. Such multitasking,
the authors note, makes it important to
distinguish between media use and media
exposure. A child who uses a computer to
instant message with friends, with a television
on in the background, for example, is being
exposed to two media. The rise of multitasking explains why time spent viewing television has remained static and has not been
replaced with other media: children are
simply adding other media uses to the time
that the television is on.
The primary driver of this trend is the
computer—what the authors call the “media
multitasking station.” But other media plat-
Introducing the Issue
forms are following suit and are now able to
perform multiple duties—a cell phone can be
a television and Internet portal and radio all
in one. The high prevalence of multitasking
and the growth of new media technologies
complicate the measurement of media use:
traditional time-use surveys were not designed
to measure two, three, or even more activities
being conducted simultaneously. The authors
argue that analysts must develop a new way of
conceptualizing media exposure to capture accurately children’s media use and exposure.
Learning, Attention, and Achievement
One of the central concerns of today’s parents
and teachers is how media technology affects
children’s cognitive development and academic achievement. Does media technology
influence learning styles? Does leisure-time
media use affect cognition and if so how?
Can media technology be used effectively as
a teaching tool in schools?
The impact of electronic media on children
depends on the age of the child and the
content of the media. Heather Kirkorian
and Daniel Anderson, both of the University
of Massachusetts–Amherst, and Ellen
Wartella, of the University of California–
Riverside, review research on young children.
Infants and toddlers, they find, do not seem
to learn easily from electronic media because
they need direct experience and interaction
with real people to develop cognitively. By age
three, children can benefit from electronic
media with educational content that uses
specific strategies such as repeating an idea
over and over, presenting images and sounds
that capture attention, and using child rather
than adult voices for the characters. However,
more is not necessarily better; one study finds
that achievement peaks at one to two hours
of educational programming then declines
with heavier use. Moreover, the aim of the
vast majority of electronic media targeted at
preschoolers is not educational. The techniques these media use are intended to
entertain rather than to teach.
Older children use multiple types of media in
their homes. Moreover, media technology is
increasingly being used in schools as a
teaching tool. Marie Evans Schmidt, of the
Center on Media and Child Health at
Children’s Hospital Boston, and Elizabeth
Vandewater, of the University of Texas–Austin, examine links between media and
learning, achievement, and attention in older
children and adolescents. They conclude that
content, if designed correctly, can enhance
learning. Moreover, some evidence shows
that certain media use, such as playing video
games, can have positive effects, particularly
in developing visual spatial skills. While
analysts have found some links between
heavy media exposure and poor school
achievement, they have uncovered no clearly
causal links. Nor have they found that media
use causes attention deficit disorder, although
there is a small link between heavy television
viewing and non-clinical attention issues.
Interestingly, although using media during
leisure time may have benefits for children’s
learning and achievement, electronic technologies used in schools are not necessarily
more effective than traditional teaching
techniques. The results depend on how
teachers use the technology and their own
comfort level with the medium.
Emotional Development and
Relationships with Parents and Peers
Increasingly of late, discussions about
electronic media have focused on the social
implications of the various technologies. Do
electronic media have the potential to
influence children’s emotions and their
relationships with others? Barbara Wilson, of
the Department of Communication at the
University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign,
VOL. 18 / NO. 1 / S PR ING 2008
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Jeanne Brooks-Gunn and Elisabeth Hirschhorn Donahue
considers the evidence for children and
concludes that programs designed to promote
pro-social behavior do increase social capacities such as altruism, cooperation, and
tolerance of others. On the flip side, the
content of some entertainment and news
programs can instill fear and anxiety in
children. Between ages three and eight,
children are usually more frightened by evil
fantasy characters; older children, by contrast,
are more affected by realistic scenes of injury
and violence. Children who have a heavy
media diet of violence are more likely to
perceive the world as dangerous and to see
aggression as more acceptable than those
who view media violence less often.
For older children and youth, media technology is now integral to communication with
peers and parents. Kaveri Subrahmanyam and
Patricia Greenfield, of the Children’s Digital
Media Center, UCLA/CSULA, explore
whether online communication has made
youths more socially isolated, by curtailing
time that they spend with friends “offline,” or
whether it has strengthened their social
connections. The authors also investigate
whether new media forms have opened up
novel ways of communicating. Although the
research effort in this area is just beginning,
the authors believe that the positives outweigh
the negatives. Children and youth use electronic media mainly to communicate with
their offline friends. Contrary to popular
perception, adolescents today primarily use
these tools to enhance communication with
people they know. They use the Internet less
frequently now to communicate with strangers
than was the case in the early years of the
Internet. That said, some teens do communicate with strangers—in chat rooms, on bulletin
boards, on multiplayer games—but such
communication is not necessarily negative.
The authors are careful to note that new
communication tools do invite harassment and
6
THE F U T U R E O F C H I L DR EN
offer a place for bullying. Predators are well
aware that they can use the Internet to reach
out to vulnerable teens. But the authors
dispute the notion that new communication
tools cause these problems. Rather, they posit
that negative behavior is simply being transferred to a new stage—from offline to online.
The key challenge for parents is to be aware of
how their teens are using communication tools
and to look for clues about inappropriate use.
Healthful and Unhealthful Behaviors:
Links to Media
One ongoing concern in reports on electronic
media in the popular press is that media
technology has increased risky behaviors by
teens. But although some risky behaviors may
be on the rise, can we definitely say that
media technology is the culprit? Soledad
Liliana Escobar-Chaves, of the University of
Texas Health Science Center at Houston
School of Public Health, and Craig Anderson,
of the Center for the Study of Violence at
Iowa State University, find that some risky
behaviors are strongly linked to media
consumption, others are linked more tangentially, and still others require additional
research before an answer can be given. For
example, researchers have amassed clear
evidence that media violence is a risk factor
for aggressive behavior, though they note that
there is much less evidence linking it to crime.
Solid research demonstrates that advertising
and product placement for cigarettes and
alcohol, as well as exposure to movie characters’ smoking and drinking, increase underage
drinking and initiation of smoking. The
authors report quite modest evidence of links
between heavy media consumption and
obesity. Finally, additional research is needed
to know whether early sexual initiation is
linked to media use.
Conversely, when a risky behavior decreases,
as teenage pregnancy has in recent years,
Introducing the Issue
can media technology claim credit? Douglas
Evans, vice president for public health and
environment at RTI International, maintains
that media can enhance healthful behaviors
through social marketing campaigns. He cites
campaigns to prevent and control tobacco
use, increase physical activity, improve nutrition, and promote condom use as examples
of successful social marketing, which increasingly borrows techniques used by commercial
marketers. Funding constraints complicate
the task of social marketers in competing with
commercial marketing, so social marketers
need to work hard to create persuasive messages and reach out to community organizers
to create social movements that mirror their
marketing messages.
government has historically done little
to ameliorate the effects of marketing on
children. And recent trends expanding
First Amendment protection of commercial
speech mean that government is not likely to
strengthen regulation.
The Development of Consumers:
Marketing to Children
Advertising, product placement, and product
tie-ins are all part of electronic media and all
are used to influence children’s consumption
of products. Do commercial media marketers influence child and youth behavior, and
if so how and how much? If marketing has a
big impact on child outcomes, what should
policymakers and parents do about it? Sandra
Calvert, of the Department of Psychology at
Georgetown University, finds that marketing
and advertising are indeed an influential and
integral part of children’s daily lives and, not
surprisingly, that many of the products marketed to children are unhealthful. Furthermore, young children do not understand that
advertisements are meant to persuade them
to purchase goods; instead, they see commercials as helpful sources of information about
products. Although older children and youth
are more aware of the intent of advertising,
they too are impressionable, particularly in
the face of newer “stealth” marketing techniques, which subtly intertwine advertising
with the program content. Despite these
negative findings, Calvert concludes, the
Regulating content, however, is extremely difficult. At the government level, First Amendment considerations and the increasing reality
that many media forms are exempt from
government oversight makes broad regulation
of content close to impossible. At the community and school level, educators struggle to
use media in positive ways while ensuring that
technology is not used to cheat or bully. At the
family level, it is easier for parents to tell their
children, “one hour of media, that’s it,” than to
wade through the content of the myriad media offerings and to compete with an industry
that often cares more about commercial success than children’s quality of life.
Where We Go From Here
The main lesson learned from this volume
can be captured in one phrase: “content
matters.” That is, the message is the message.
Rather than focusing on the type of technology children use or even how much time
children spend with media, parents and
policymakers need to focus on what is being
offered to children on the various media
platforms.
Implications for Policymakers
As Amy Jordan, of the Annenberg Public
Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, notes in her article, which concludes the
volume, policymakers face major challenges
as they attempt to craft legislation that both
respects the First Amendment protection of
speech and provides parents with effective
tools to regulate content within their homes.
The result is media policy that is essentially a
patchwork of industry self-regulation and
VOL. 18 / NO. 1 / S PR ING 2008
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Jeanne Brooks-Gunn and Elisabeth Hirschhorn Donahue
government rule-making that regulates some
but not all types of media. As media evolve,
the challenges will become greater. First, it is
difficult to enact laws and regulations that
keep pace with rapidly changing technology,
much of which is increasingly outside the
purview of government control. Second, as
technological convergence becomes the
norm, regulating a specific media form, such
as requiring V-chips in televisions, becomes
somewhat meaningless. The alternative—
government regulation of media content
rather than platform—is unpalatable to many
given our country’s valuation of free speech.
Even the powerful First Amendment, however, has sometimes been trumped by the
government’s need to protect its citizens—
such as its prohibition on creating and
advertising child pornography.1 Regulations
that clearly protect the public safety of
vulnerable citizens—those, for example, that
protect young children from cyber predators
—may survive First Amendment challenges.
Indeed, last May a group of attorneys general
warned executives of MySpace that if the
company did not take better precautions
against the use of its social networking site by
sex offenders, they would take legal action,
resulting in increased protections for children
and teens.2 Several state legislatures are
considering bills that would require such sites
as MySpace and FaceBook to verify the ages
of all users and obtain parental permission for
minors.3 Still other states, such as North
Carolina, have passed laws making it a felony
for a person to solicit anyone on the Internet
whom he or she believes to be a child.4 Aside
from protecting children from serious harm,
however, it is hard to imagine that the government can or will regulate media content—as
demonstrated in 1997 when the Supreme
Court struck down as too broad legislation
that sought to protect minors from indecent
and offensive material on the Internet.5
8
THE F U T U R E O F C H I L DR EN
Although government’s ability to regulate
content may be weak, its ability to promote
positive programming and media research
is not. Government at all levels should fund
the creation and evaluation of positive media
initiatives such as public service campaigns
to reduce risky behaviors and studies about
educational programs that explore innovative
uses of media. Government should support
research into potential harms and benefits
caused by media.6 It should also provide fund-
Government at all levels
should fund the creation and
evaluation of positive media
initiatives such as public
service campaigns to reduce
risky behaviors and studies
about educational programs
that explore innovative uses
of media.
ing to launch initiatives to ensure that schools
teach students how to use technology in
preparation for the twenty-first century world
of work. Finally, although much of electronic
media is outside the control of government,
broadcast television and radio are still within
its regulatory realm and government should
continue to ensure that good educational
programming is available to children.
Implications for Educators
Media use in the schools is a double-edged
sword. On the one hand, media technology
can be used as a powerful teaching tool; one
important lesson from this volume is that,
with the right content, educators can use
electronic media to help children learn and to
Introducing the Issue
shape their behaviors in positive directions.
Moreover, the pervasiveness of media technology makes it crucial for students to learn
how to use electronic media constructively.
On the other hand, teachers must have tools
to manage the private use of electronic media
in schools, ranging from such innocuous
interference with learning as text-messaging
during class to more harmful uses such as
bullying or cheating. School systems should
implement research-based programs that use
electronic media to enhance classroom curricula and create professional development
programs that instruct teachers in the uses of
new technologies.
Implications for Families
Parents will continue to be central to regulating their children’s media diet in two ways.
First, working with governmental and especially nongovernmental organizations, they
can put pressure on industry to develop better
content, create meaningful ratings systems,
cut back on inappropriate advertising, and
invent better products to help screen content.
Second, they can educate themselves about
good media use based on their children’s
developmental stages and monitor their children’s use to ensure that they engage positive
media in a healthful and constructive manner.
Because government will probably not
intervene in the realm of media content,
the most effective pressure on industry to
produce positive media content will come
from the court of public opinion made up of
child advocates and, especially, families. For
example, when FaceBook informed users
about friends’ recent purchases, an outcry
by parents and advocates led the website to
stop the practice, at least for the time being.7
When Webkinz, a popular site geared toward
younger elementary school children, started
advertising movies and promoting movie
tie-in products, similar protests caused the
site to remove the advertisements.8 Likewise,
pressure on food companies led eleven major
food and drink companies to agree to stop
advertising unhealthful products to children
under age twelve, and the children’s television network Nickelodeon followed suit and
agreed to keep their characters from appearing on most junk food packaging.9
As is evident from these successful public
actions, the key is to shift the focus from the
medium to the message. Government officials,
community activists, child advocates, and
families must put their energies into shaping
content to make media technology a positive
force in the lives of children and youth.
VOL. 18 / NO. 1 / S PR ING 2008
9
Jeanne Brooks-Gunn and Elisabeth Hirschhorn Donahue
Endnotes
1. For court rulings on child pornography, see New York v. Ferber 458 U.S. 747 (1982), which held that states
can prohibit the depiction of minors engaged in sexual conduct; Osborne v. Ohio 495 U.S. 103 (1990),
where the court upheld a statute making it illegal to possess child pornography; 18 USC Secs. 2251–2252,
which make it a federal crime to advertise and knowingly receive child pornography.
2. Brad Stone, “States Fault MySpace on Predator Issues,” New York Times, May 15, 2007 [www.nytimes.
com/2007/05/15/technology/15myspace.html]; Anne Barnard, “MySpace Agrees to Lead Fight to Stop Sex
Predators,” New York Times, January 15, 2008 [www.nytimes.com/2008/01/15/us/15myspace.html].
3. Jennifer Medina, “States Ponder Laws to Keep Web Predators from Children, New York Times, May 6,
2007 [www.nytimes.com/2007/05/06/nyregion/06myspace.html]. See also the 1998 Children’s Online
Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which requires Internet sites directed at or used by children under age
thirteen to get parental permission and keep information gathered confidential.
4. August 17, 2006, Press Release, “SBI Uses New Law to Stop On-Line Predators Says AG Cooper,” Roy
Cooper, North Carolina Attorney General, North Carolina Department of Justice.
5. Janet Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, 521 U.S. 844 (1997), which struck down on First Amendment grounds portions of the 1996 Communications Decency Act that sought to protect minors from harmful material on the Internet. Note that the sections that apply to obscene material, which does not enjoy
First Amendment protection, survived.
6. See, for example, the Children and Media Research Advancement Act (CAMRA), introduced by Congress
in 2005, which would establish a program on children and media at the National Institute of Child Health
and Human Development (NICHD) to study the impact of electronic media on children’s development.
7. Louise Story, “Apologetic, Facebook Changes Ad Program,” New York Times, December 6, 2007 [www.
nytimes.com/2007/12/06/technology/06facebook.html]; Louise Story and Brad Stone, “Facebook Retreats on
Online Tracking,” New York Times, November 30, 2007 [www.nytimes.com/2007/11/30/technology/ 30face.
html].
8. Louise Story, “Shift Away from Ad-Free Has a Price,” New York Times, December 13, 2007 [www.nytimes.
com/2007/12/13/business/media/13adco.html?ref=technology].
9. Andrew Martin, “Kellogg to Phase Out Some Food Ads to Children,” New York Times, June 14, 2007
[www.nytimes.com/2007/06/14/business/14kellogg.html]; Brooks Barnes, “Limiting Ads of Junk Food to
Children,” New York Times, July 18, 2007 [www.nytimes.com/2007/07/18/business/18food.html]; Andrew
Martin, “Nickelodeon to Limit Use of Characters on Junk Foods,” New York Times, August 16, 2007 [www.
nytimes.com/2007/08/16/business/16kids.html].
10
T H E F U T UR E OF C HI LDRE N
Trends in Media Use
Trends in Media Use
Donald F. Roberts and Ulla G. Foehr
Summary
American youth are awash in media. They have television sets in their bedrooms, personal
computers in their family rooms, and digital music players and cell phones in their backpacks.
They spend more time with media than any single activity other than sleeping, with the average American eight- to eighteen-year-old reporting more than six hours of daily media use. The
growing phenomenon of “media multitasking”—using several media concurrently—multiplies
that figure to eight and a half hours of media exposure daily.
Donald Roberts and Ulla Foehr examine how both media use and media exposure vary with
demographic factors such as age, race and ethnicity, and household socioeconomic status, and
with psychosocial variables such as academic performance and personal adjustment. They note
that media exposure begins early, increases until children begin school, drops off briefly, then
climbs again to peak at almost eight hours daily among eleven- and twelve-year-olds. Television
and video exposure is particularly high among African American youth. Media exposure is negatively related to indicators of socioeconomic status, but that relationship may be diminishing.
Media exposure is positively related to risk-taking behaviors and is negatively related to personal adjustment and school performance. Roberts and Foehr also review evidence pointing to the
existence of a digital divide—variations in access to personal computers and allied technologies
by socioeconomic status and by race and ethnicity.
The authors also examine how the recent emergence of digital media such as personal computers, video game consoles, and portable music players, as well as the media multitasking
phenomenon they facilitate, has increased young people’s exposure to media messages while
leaving media use time largely unchanged. Newer media, they point out, are not displacing
older media but are being used in concert with them. The authors note which young people are
more or less likely to use several media concurrently and which media are more or less likely to
be paired with various other media. They argue that one implication of such media multitasking
is the need to reconceptualize “media exposure.”
www.futureofchildren.org
Donald F. Roberts, the Thomas More Storke Professor Emeritus in the Department of Communication at Stanford University, has spent
more than thirty years conducting research and writing about youth and media. Ulla G. Foehr is a media research consultant specializing in children and media use behaviors.
VOL. 18 / NO. 1 / S PR ING 2008
11
A
Donald F. Roberts and Ulla G. Foehr
merica’s youth are awash in
electronic media. What began
as a media stream half a century
ago has become a torrent whose
strength continues to increase.
Before World War II, mass media available
to young people consisted mainly of print
(magazines, newspapers, and books), motion
pictures (by then, “talkies” had appeared),
and radio (by the end of the 1930s, U.S.
households averaged slightly more than one
radio set apiece). Following the war, television set distribution went from 0.5 percent
of households in 1946 to 55 percent in 1956
and 87 percent in 1960.1 The media flood was
just getting started, however. As television’s
reach continued to grow—97 percent of U.S.
homes had a TV set by 1974, and in 2001
the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that U.S.
households averaged 2.4 TV sets apiece—new
electronic media began to spring up. Personal
computers emerged as consumer products
near the end of the 1970s (the Apple II in
1977, the IBM-PC in 1981) and were named
Time magazine’s “person of the year” in 1982.
Personal computers were swiftly embraced
by families with children. These computers
had penetrated almost a quarter of homes
with children between the ages of three and
seventeen years by 1989, 70 percent of such
homes by 2001, and 75 percent by 2003. Similarly, the Internet, which became available to
the general population in the early 1990s, was
being used at home by 22 percent of three- to
seventeen-year-olds in 1997 and by 63 percent in 2003.2 Today, not only are American
young people surrounded by media in their
homes and schools, but the portability made
possible by the increased miniaturization of
digital media means that they can remain
connected almost anywhere they wish to go.
Laptop computers, cell phones, and handheld
Internet devices are rapidly becoming basic
equipment for today’s teenagers.
12
T H E F U T UR E OF C HI LDRE N
Hand-in-hand with the growth in media available to young people has been a change in
the content available to them. Today, a substantial part of the media industry is devoted
to creating and distributing content specifically aimed at children and adolescents. Television has moved from family programming,
to children’s programs, to complete channels
aimed at the youth market. The music industry relies on fourteen- to twenty-four-yearold consumers. Youth-oriented interactive
games inhabit the TV screen, the computer
screen, an array of handheld devices, and
cyberspace. The Internet, originally designed
as a communication network for the military
and scientists, has morphed into the World
Wide Web, with a seemingly endless array
of destinations, many designed specifically
for kids and many more open to, albeit not
designed for, them. With so many media and
so much content available, it is not surprising
that young people devote much of their time
to media.
But how much time? To which media? To
what kinds of content? Under what conditions? The importance of these questions
should not be underestimated. Without an
accurate mapping of young people’s media exposure, researchers can never fully
understand whether and how media affect
the lives of children and adolescents. Hundreds of studies examining media effects on
children (many of which will be examined
in other articles in this issue) are based on
assumptions about exposure. For example,
for children to learn from media content,
whether the learning is intended (as with
Sesame Street’s efforts to teach numbers and
letters or Wikipedia’s online explanations of
just about anything) or incidental (as with
children acquiring aggressive behaviors from
a video game or materialistic values from an
unending barrage of advertisements), they
Trends in Media Use
must be exposed to specific kinds of content
under specific conditions. Questions about
whether new ways of structuring information
influence young people’s information processing skills begin with assumptions about
how much time children spend with different
forms of media. Likewise, questions about
whether and how the time youth devote to
media affects other areas in their lives, such
as the time spent doing homework or participating in after-school activities, depend
on accurate measures of that time. In short,
almost any question about how media affect
young people is predicated on assumptions
about media exposure.
With so many media and so
much content available, it
is not surprising that young
people devote much of their
time to media. But how much
time? To which media? To
what kinds of content?
Under what conditions?
Questions about media use and exposure,
however, are not easily answered. The first
difficulty is measurement issues. There is
good reason to question the accuracy both of
older children’s self-reports of media exposure
and of parental estimates of the time younger
children devote to media.3 Second, until
recently, relatively few studies have been
based on representative samples of U.S.
youngsters, making it hard to generalize
research findings to the broader population.
Third, many studies, even many recent ones,
focus primarily on a limited array of media,
precluding examinations of “media use” as
opposed to “television use” or “computer
use.” Finally, each of these problems is
compounded by ongoing changes in the
media environment—changes not only in the
form and substance of media content, but also
and particularly in the speedy emergence and
adoption by young people of a variety of new
media. For example, cell phones, a relatively
rare possession among U.S. adolescents five
or six years ago, are rapidly becoming one of
teenagers’ favorite new media. In addition,
changes in the media environment have made
it necessary to differentiate between “media
use” and “media exposure.” Estimates of
young people’s overall media time that simply
sum the amount of exposure to each individual medium are no longer valid, if they ever
were. Media multitasking—the concurrent
use of multiple media—has become the order
of the day, one result of which is that youngsters report substantially more hours of being
exposed to media content than hours of using
media. Such disclaimers notwithstanding,
recent research provides a reasonably clear
snapshot of what remains, for better or worse,
a moving target.
The following examination of U.S. young
people’s media use and exposure focuses on
children and adolescents ranging in age from
birth to eighteen years. We focus primarily on
recent studies that have used large, representative samples and gathered information on
the full array of media available to young
people. For the most part, information
concerning younger children (from birth to
eight years) comes from three studies conducted under the auspices of the Kaiser
Family Foundation and is based on parent
reports.4 Information on older children (eight
to eighteen years) comes primarily from two
other Kaiser Family Foundation surveys of
representative samples of school-aged children
and was obtained through self-administered
VOL. 18 / NO. 1 / S PR ING 2008
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Donald F. Roberts and Ulla G. Foehr
Table 1. Household and Personal Media Ownership, by Age of Child
Percent
Share of children of various ages whose households contain media
Type of medium
0–6 years 0–1 years 2–3 years 4–6 years
Television
99
n.a.
n.a.
n.a.
8–18 years
99
98
100
99
Video player
93
n.a.
n.a.
n.a.
97
96
99
98
Radio
n.a.
n.a.
n.a.
n.a.
97
94
98
99
Audio player
n.a.
n.a.
n.a.
n.a.
98
95
99
100
Video game player
50
n.a.
n.a.
n.a.
83
84
84
81
Computer
78
n.a.
n.a.
n.a.
86
83
89
86
Cable or satellite
n.a.
n.a.
n.a.
n.a.
82
76
86
82
Internet access
69
n.a.
n.a.
n.a.
74
63
78
80
Instant messaging program
n.a.
n.a.
n.a.
n.a.
60
42
63
70
8–10 years 11–14 years 15–18 years
Share of children of various ages whose bedrooms contain media
Type of medium
0–6 years 0–1 years 2–3 years 4–6 years
Television
33
19
29
8–18 years
8–10 years 11–14 years 15–18 years
43
68
69
68
68
Video player
23
12
22
30
54
47
56
56
Radio
n.a.
n.a.
n.a.
n.a.
84
74
85
91
Audio player
n.a.
n.a.
n.a.
n.a.
86
75
89
92
Video game
10
2
5
18
49
52
52
41
5
3
3
7
31
23
31
37
17
10
12
23
37
32
38
40
2
2
1
2
20
10
21
27
n.a.
n.a.
n.a.
n.a.
18
9
17
27
Computer
Cable or satellite
Internet access
Instant messaging program
Share of children of various ages with “their own” media
Type of medium
0–6 years 0–1 years 2–3 years 4–6 years
Cell phone
n.a.
n.a.
n.a.
n.a.
8–18 years
39
21
36
56
Portable audio player
n.a.
n.a.
n.a.
n.a.
61
35
65
77
PDMP (MP3)
n.a.
n.a.
n.a.
n.a.
18
12
20
20
Laptop computer
n.a.
n.a.
n.a.
n.a.
12
13
11
15
Handheld video game
n.a.
n.a.
n.a.
n.a.
55
66
60
41
Personal digital assistant
n.a.
n.a.
n.a.
n.a.
11
9
14
8
Handheld Internet device
n.a.
n.a.
n.a.
n.a.
13
7
15
17
8–10 years 11–14 years 15–18 years
Sources: Information on young children from Victoria J. Rideout and Elizabeth Hamel, The Media Family: Electronic Media in the Lives
of Infants, Toddlers, Preschoolers, and their Parents (Menlo Park, Calif.: Kaiser Family Foundation, 2006); information on older children from Donald F. Roberts, Ulla Foehr, and Victoria Rideout, Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8–18-year-olds (Menlo Park, Calif.:
Kaiser Family Foundation, 2005). Data are missing for younger children in the first part of the table because subgroup analyses were
not reported and, in the second and third part of the table, because particular questions were not asked of young children.
questionnaires completed in schools and,
importantly, from associated time-use diaries
completed by children at home.5 In this article
we focus on electronic media: television, video
players, audio media (radio, tape, and compact
14
T H E F U T UR E OF C HI LDRE N
disc players), video games (both console-based
and handheld), computers, and, when possible, such new digital media as cell phones,
personal digital media players (PDMPs),
personal digital assistants, and handheld
Trends in Media Use
Internet devices. Except where noted, exposure times refer to recreational or leisure
media use—that is, exposure to media content
not associated with school or homework or
with any kind of employment.
Media in the Home
Although the United States continues to
experience a “digital divide”—varying access
to certain media, particularly computers and
allied technologies, related to differences
in socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity,
and gender—most U.S. youth have access to
most media most of the time. Television has
penetrated 99 percent of all households with
children, and more than 95 percent of those
same households have video players, radios,
and compact disc and tape audio players.
Seventy-eight percent of households with
young children (birth to six years) and 85
percent of those with eight- to eighteen-yearolds have personal computers, and 50 percent
of households with younger children and 83
percent of those with older children have a
video game console. Moreover, most children
live with several of these media. The typical
U.S. eight- to eighteen-year-old lives in a
household equipped with three TV sets, three
video players, three radios, three PDMPs
(for example, an iPod or other MP3 device),
two video game consoles, and a personal
computer.6 As table 1 illustrates, saturation
or near-saturation levels have been reached
for all but the newest electronic media, and
those are likely to follow much the same pattern. Indeed, the presence of youngsters in
a household stimulates early adoption of the
new electronic media. For example, the 73
percent computer penetration Nielsen found
for all U.S households in 2007 is substantially
below the 85 percent penetration found three
years earlier in homes with eight- to eighteen
-year-olds. Similarly, Nielsen now reports
PDMPs in 27 percent of all households,
but estimates that two-thirds of homes with
twelve- to seventeen-year-olds already own or
rent an MP3, iPod, or similar device.7
Personal Media
Personal media—that is, media that young
people claim as their own—also affect access
and exposure. The Kaiser data reveal that in
2004, 68 percent of U.S. eight- to eighteenyear-olds and 33 percent of children from
birth to age six had a TV in their bedroom (19
percent of children under age one roomed
with a TV set). Television is the most ubiquitous personal medium among children, but
far from the only one. In 2003, 23 percent of
children in the birth to six-year age range had
a video player in their bedroom, 10 percent
had a video game player, and 5 percent a
personal computer. Not surprisingly, the
proportions climb as children get older. For
example, in excess of 80 percent of eight- to
eighteen-year-olds report having their own
radio and their own CD or tape player (92
percent claim some kind of music medium);
31 percent have a computer of their own, half
have a video player, and 49 percent a video
game console in their room. As new electronic media become more portable and more
affordable, young people tend to number
among the earlier adopters. In 2004, 61 percent of eight- to eighteen-year-olds claimed
to own a portable CD or tape player, 55
percent a handheld video game, 18 percent a
PDMP, 39 percent their own cell phone, and
13 percent some kind of handheld Internet
device (Internet connectivity via cell phone
was relatively rare at that time). Rapid diffusion of such media among youth is further
attested to by estimates from 2005 that 45
percent of teens owned their own cell phone,
up from 39 percent in 2004.8
Media Access in Schools
Not only do substantial numbers of young
VOL. 18 / NO. 1 / S PR ING 2008
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Donald F. Roberts and Ulla G. Foehr
people carry most forms of portable digital
media to school with them, most schools in
the United States are now “wired.” Although
we have found no data pertaining to electronic media in preschools and day care centers,9
virtually all public schools have for several
decades owned TV sets (the average number
of TV sets per public school exceeded twelve
by 1994). Recent U.S. Department of Education data indicate that 100 percent of U.S.
public schools had Internet connectivity by
2003, that 93 percent of public school instructional rooms had access by 2003, and that 95
percent of schools with Internet access were
using broadband (high-speed) connections in
that same year.10 Theoretically, then, it
appears that most youngsters have relatively
easy access to all but the very newest electronic media.
The Digital Divide
The term “digital divide” came into popular
usage during the mid-1990s and originally
referred to variations in access (in homes,
schools, or other public locations) to personal
computers and allied technologies, such as
Internet connections, according to differences in socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity,
gender, and geography (rural and urban location). More recently, as the gap in access to
computers has narrowed somewhat, the term
has also been applied both to broadband
connectivity and to differences in technical
support and in how members of different
socioeconomic status or ethnic groups use the
technology.
In spite of the rapid penetration of the newer
electronic media into young people’s households, a digital divide persists—the likelihood
of household computer ownership still varies
as a function of socioeconomic status and race
and ethnicity. For example, the U.S. Census
Bureau’s Current Population Survey reports
that the likelihood of three- to seventeenyear-olds living in homes with a personal
computer is strongly related to household
income. As figure 1 shows, fewer than 60
percent of homes with annual incomes under
$20,000 have computers, as against more than
90 percent of homes with annual earnings of
$60,000 or more. And although 93 percent
Figure 1. Share of Children Age 3–17 with Computers in Home, by Household Income
Percent
100
80
60
40
20
0
0–5k
5–10k
10–15k
15–20k
20–30k
30–40k
40–50k
50–60k
60–75k
75–
100k
100–
150k
Household income
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, 2003, Computer and Internet Use Supplement (Department of Commerce, 2003).
16
T H E F U T UR E OF C HI LDRE N
Trends in Media Use
Figure 2. Share of Households with Children 8–18 with Electronic Media, by Race and Ethnicity
Percent
90
80
70
60
White
50
African American
40
Hispanic
30
20
10
0
Personal computer
Internet
Instant messaging
Video games
Source: Donald F. Roberts, Ulla Foehr, and Victoria Rideout, Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-year-olds (Menlo Park, Calif.:
Kaiser Family Foundation, 2005).
of youngsters living in homes with an annual
income of more than $75,000 have access to
the Internet, only 29 percent of those from
homes with earnings under $15,000 have
Internet access.11 Similarly, the Kaiser data
indicate that in-home computer availability
varies by both parental education and race
and ethnicity. Ninety-one percent of eight- to
eighteen-year-olds whose parents completed
college have access to an in-home personal
computer as compared with 84 percent of
those whose parents attended but did not
finish college and 82 percent of those whose
parents completed no more than high school.
Ownership of allied computer technologies
such as Internet connections and instant
messaging programs follows the same pattern,
with more access in homes where parents
completed college and less in homes where
parents completed high school. Figure 2 illustrates differences of in-home computer availability as a function of race and ethnicity. A
higher share of white (90 percent) than either
African American (78 percent) or Hispanic
(80 percent) eight- to eighteen-year-olds live
with personal computers, and the pattern is
similar for Internet connections and instant
messaging programs.12
Even though computers with Internet connectivity have become available in almost all
public schools (with broadband connections
not far behind), schools with the highest
poverty concentrations have higher ratios of
students to instructional computers (5:1 versus
4.1:1) and less access to computers outside
regular school hours than do schools with the
lowest poverty concentrations. Moreover, the
likelihood of having a website that can make
information available to parents and students
is lower both in schools with high minority
enrollments and in schools with the highest
concentrations of poverty.13 Finally, children
from higher-income households are more
than twice as likely as those from the lowestincome households to use a home computer
to complete school assignments (77 percent
versus 29 percent) and are more than three
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Donald F. Roberts and Ulla G. Foehr
Table 2. Children’s Average Daily Exposure to Five Electronic Media, Total Media Exposure,
and Total Media Use, by Age
Research sample
Television
Videos and
movies
Audio
Video
games
Computer
Total media
exposure
Total media
use
Children 0–6 years (2005)
Total sample
0:59
0:24
0:48
0:06
0:07
2:24
n.a.
0–1 year
0:34
0:13
0:57
0:00
0:01
1:45
n.a.
2–3 years
1:11
0:32
0:50
0:03
0:05
2:41
n.a.
4–6 years
1:02
0:25
0:41
0:10
0:10
2:28
n.a.
1:59
0:31
0:45
0:08
0:07
3:30
2:56
Children 2–7 years (1999)
Total sample
Children 8–18 years (2004)
Total sample
3:04
1:11
1:44
0:49
1:02
7:50
5:48
8–10 years
3:17
1:24
0:59
1:05
0:37
7:21
5:22
11–14 years
3:16
1:09
1:42
0:52
1:02
8:00
6:00
15–18 years
2:36
1:05
2:24
0:33
1:22
7:59
5:59
3:05
0:59
1:48
0:26
0:27
6:45
5:40
Children 8–18 years (1999)
Total sample
Source: Data on sample of children 0–6 years (2005) from Rideout and Hamel (see table 1); on sample 2–7 years (1999) from Donald
F. Roberts and others, Kids and Media at the New Millennium (Menlo Park, Calif.: Kaiser Family Foundation, 1999); on sample 8–18
years (2004) from Roberts, Foehr, and Rideout, Generation M (see table 1); on sample 8–18 years (1999) from Roberts and others,
Kids and Media (see above). Because time-use diaries were not obtained for the 2005 sample of young children, total media use
estimates are not available for them.
times as likely to use a personal computer for
word processing or desktop publishing.14
It seems, then, that although in terms of access to the technology the digital divide has
narrowed substantially since the mid-1990s
(particularly access within public schools),
in terms of the potential benefits of computers and allied technologies for education and
economic opportunity, there remains cause
for concern.
Overall Media Exposure and Use
Although some early studies of children’s
media exposure report time devoted to each
of several different media, we have located
no research published before 1999 that estimates young people’s “total media exposure”
or that differentiates between media exposure and media use.15 Asking respondents,
particularly children, to estimate their overall
“media time” is almost pointless. The mean18
T H E F U T UR E OF C HI LDRE N
ing of “media” differs from person to person,
the wide and increasing array of media to
which the term refers makes the task even
more difficult, and the fact that young people
in particular engage in a great deal of media
use as a secondary, even tertiary, activity—
the TV may be on as a teenager washes the
dishes and argues with a sibling while listening to a PDMP through ear-pods—further
impairs recall. It is more accurate to ask
youngsters to report time they spend with
each individual medium (Yesterday, how
much time did you spend using a computer?
How much time did you watch TV?). Unfortunately, however, overall “media use” is not
a straightforward summation of time exposed
to each individual medium. To the extent that
people “use” several media at the same time,
playing a video game while listening to music,
the sum of the two exposure estimates will
be double the amount of time spent using
media. That is, while engaged in one hour of
Trends in Media Use
media use (playing a video game while listening to music) a youngster is exposed to two
hours of media content (one hour of video
game content, one of music content). The
exposure-use distinction has become especially important as new media, particularly
the personal computer, have increased the
amount of concurrent media use as well as
the rate of media multitasking among young
people. In what follows, then, “media use”
refers to the amount of time young people
devote to all media (that is, person hours
devoted to using media); “media exposure”
refers to media content encountered by
young people expressed in units of time (that
is, hours of television exposure).16
Table 2 summarizes recent estimates of both
media exposure and media use for samples of
both younger and older children. Exposure to
electronic media starts early and rises quickly.
In 2005, children six years and younger
averaged 2:24 (two hours and twenty-four
minutes) daily exposure to media content.
Data on concurrent media use were not collected for the birth to six-year-old samples.
In 1999, however, parents reported that a
national sample of two- to seven-year-olds
experienced 3:30 of media exposure while
engaged in 2:56 media use. Among older
children and adolescents, in 2004, eight- to
eighteen-year-olds reported an average of
7:50 of daily electronic media exposure, but
packed all that content into just over 5:48 of
media use. In other words, approximately 25
percent of the time that eight- to eighteenyear-olds were using media, they used two
or more at once—a substantial increase in
the proportion of time a similar sample used
multiple media concurrently just five years
earlier. In 1999, eight- to eighteen-year-olds
engaged in media multitasking 17 percent of
the time, fitting 6:45 exposure into 5:40 media use. Thus, although total media exposure
increased more than an hour across the fiveyear span, media use remained remarkably
constant (5:40 vs. 5:48). Donald Roberts, Ulla
Foehr, and Victoria Rideout conjecture that a
ceiling for media use may have been reached,
but that the explosion of new media has led
to increased exposure because of increases
in the proportion of media time that young
people use several media concurrently.17
Table 2 provides little support for speculation
that newer media, such as computers, the
Internet, and video games, are displacing such
older media as television. Not only does TV
viewing consume almost triple the time given
to the next closest media category, but also
the next closest category consists of videos
and movies—arguably simply another form of
“television.” In other words, exposure to a
“TV screen” in one form or another accounts
for more than half of all young people’s
electronic media exposure. Much the same
pattern emerges in estimates of children’s
media budgets based on calculating the share
of total media time each individual youth
devotes to each medium, then averaging those
proportions. In 1999, eight- to eighteen-yearolds devoted 51 percent of their media time
to TV and to videos and movies; in 2004 the
proportion was 48 percent. Thus, as table 2
indicates, although total media exposure
increased substantially from 1999 to 2004, the
increment was due almost completely to
increases in time with video games and
computers—over the five years, daily video
game time went from 0:26 to 0:49, and
average daily computer time increased from
0:27 to 1:02.18 Moreover, the additional
exposure was almost completely due to
increased use of several media simultaneously,
not to displacement of older media such as
television. In short, total media exposure
increased, media multitasking increased, total
use remained relatively constant, and there is
VOL. 18 / NO. 1 / S PR ING 2008
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Donald F. Roberts and Ulla G. Foehr
little evidence that any medium—but especially television—is being displaced.19
Age and Media Exposure
Exposure to each of the electronic media
varies substantially according to a wide array
of subgroup characteristics, and as table 2
indicates, age is one of the most important.
Parent estimates of young children’s exposure
are less than half the total media exposure
reported by older youths. There is little
question that some of this difference is real.21
But a substantial part of the large difference
between exposure levels reported for six- to
seven-year-olds in the younger sample and
for eight-year-olds in the older sample is
likely due to differences in how data were
gathered for the two age groups—that is,
parent reports and self reports. Not only
does a strong “social desirability” bias elicit
conservative answers when parents are asked
how much time their children devote to
such activities as television viewing or video
game playing, but the migration of media to
children’s bedrooms means that parents frequently do not know whether, when, or how
much their children listen, view, or click.22
Nevertheless, with these caveats in mind, it
seems clear that both television exposure and
overall media exposure follow similar, agerelated patterns.
just under five hours daily) until about the
time children enter preschool or kindergarten. It drops off slightly for a brief period,
then climbs to a peak of just over eight hours
daily at around eleven to twelve years,
followed by a gradual decline (to about seven
hours daily) during later adolescence. This
age-related, bi-modal pattern (that is, having
two distinct peaks) of exposure was noted for
television some years ago and, as is also
illustrated in table 3, continues to hold for
that medium. Indeed, we suspect the continuing dominance of television in children’s
media diet is largely responsible for the
current pattern for overall media exposure.23
The bi-modal pattern is generally explained
as resulting from changes in children’s
available time—changes driven primarily by
the demands of school and school-related
activities. That is, among younger children,
TV exposure (indeed, all media exposure)
steadily increases during the first four or five
years (paralleling increases in available time).
At around four to six years, however, children
begin school, and the more structured and to
some extent television-free school environment means less time is available for media.
As young children adapt to the demands of
school and begin to have somewhat later
bedtimes, TV viewing (and overall media
exposure) climbs again. A few years later,
however, the change from grade school to
middle school brings with it new demands on
time—longer school hours, homework, and
organized after-school activities, such as
sports, clubs, and jobs. The social demands of
adolescence, coupled with increased mobility,
also cut into media time; given a choice
between hanging out with friends or watching TV, for example, a typical sixteen-year-old
usually chooses the former.
Overall media exposure, pictured in figure 3,
starts out low and increases fairly rapidly (to
Age-related exposure patterns, of course,
depend on both the medium and the needs
We have located no estimates of the amount
of time that young people spend using such
new, portable media as cell phones or personal
data assistants. However the Pew Internet and
American Life Project reports that in 2005
two-thirds of all teenagers with cell phones (at
that time 45 percent of all teens) used instant
messaging (IM), with half of IM users exchanging such messages at least once daily.20
20
T H E F U T UR E OF C HI LDRE N
Trends in Media Use
Figure 3. Total Media Exposure and Television Exposure, by Age
Hours daily exposure
8
7
6
5
Total media
4
Television
3
2
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
Age in years
Source: Donald F. Roberts and Ulla G. Foehr, Kids and Media in America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
and interests associated with different age
categories. For example, among older youths,
exposure to audio media, which is generally
synonymous with music exposure, is positively and linearly related to age. As children
grow older, they are exposed to more audio
media. A similar positive link exists for age
and computer time. Conversely, video game
playing is negatively related to age. In the case
of exposure to audio media, table 2 illustrates
that music listening starts out relatively low
(less than an hour daily at age eight), but
climbs continually from that point, to more
than three hours by age eighteen.24 Such a
positive relationship is not surprising. Popular
music media (radio, recordings) have long
ranked among adolescents’ preferred media,
and as digitization has made music media
more portable, it has become much easier
for teenagers to have music whenever they
want, wherever they are. Computers follow
a similar pattern, but for somewhat different reasons. Eight- through ten-year-olds
report 0:37 daily of nonschool computer use;
by eleven to fourteen years the average is
1:02, and among fifteen- to eighteen-yearolds average leisure-related computer time
reaches 1:22. We suspect that several factors
account for increased computer time among
teens. As youngsters grow older they become
more adept at using computers, particularly
at navigating the Internet, and they find more
and more sites relevant to their needs and interests. In addition, as computers take on the
functions of most other media (young people
use them to listen to music, watch movies and
film clips, play interactive games, and read the
newspaper), it is not surprising that adolescents devote more time to them. Perhaps
most important, however, is the computer’s
emergence as a social networking device,
a function that is particularly important to
adolescents and to which they are increasingly devoting online attention. For example,
in 2005, the Pew Internet and American Life
Project reported that of the 87 percent of
U.S. teens who used the Internet, more than
half (55 percent) used online social networking sites, and that 55 percent had created a
personal profile online.25
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Donald F. Roberts and Ulla G. Foehr
As noted, video game exposure is negatively
related to age. Eight- through ten-year-olds
spend slightly more than an hour a day
playing video games (both console-based and
handheld combined), but video gaming
declines with age to just over half an hour
among fifteen- to eighteen-year-olds, a
decrease that we suspect is largely accounted
for by a steady increase in the number of
older youths who play no video games on any
given day.
Race and Ethnicity and Media Exposure
Media exposure among young children,
especially exposure to screen media such as
television, videos, and movies, is related to
race and ethnicity. Victoria Rideout and
Elizabeth Hamel found that African American
children from birth to age six spend significantly more time with television (1:18 daily)
than do either Hispanic children (1:00) or
white children (0:53).26 This finding largely
replicates a pattern found with a slightly older
sample (two- to seven-year-olds) a few years
earlier, when African American children
averaged 3:06 daily TV exposure, Hispanic
children 2:55, and white children 2:29. With
the exception of length of TV exposure, young
African American and Hispanic children do
not differ in their use of most other media.
Young white children spend less time with
videos, movies, and video games, and more
time than African American children with
computers.
Race and ethnicity are also related to similar
differences in media exposure among older
youths. African American and Hispanic
youths report more overall media exposure
than whites (total daily media exposure is
10:10, 8:52, and 7:58 for African Americans,
Hispanics, and whites, respectively). And
again, as illustrated in figure 4, exposure
differs depending on the medium, with screen
media (television, videos, and movies) accounting for most of the overall media
exposure difference. African American youths
spend more time with television (4:05) than
do either Hispanic (3:23) or white youths
(2:45), and when all screen media are com-
Figure 4. Daily Media Exposure among Children 8–18, by Race and Ethnicity
Daily exposure
4:19
3:50
3:21
2:52
White
2:24
African
American
1:55
Hispanic
1:26
0:57
0:28
0
TV
DVD/movie
Audio
Source: Roberts, Foehr, and Rideout, Generation M (See figure 2).
22
T H E F U T UR E OF C HI LDRE N
Computer
Video games
Trends in Media Use
bined, daily viewing averages 5:53 among
African American eight- to eighteen-year-olds,
4:37 among Hispanics, and 3:47 among
whites. A similar pattern exists for time
devoted to playing interactive games: African
American youngsters report the most game
playing (0:40 daily), followed by Hispanic
youngsters (0:34), then white youngsters
(0:30). On the other hand, race and ethnicity
are not related to exposure to audio media,
and although a significantly higher share of
white youths (57 percent) than either African
American (44 percent) or Hispanic (47
percent) report using a computer on any given
day, the three groups do not differ reliably in
the amount of time they use computers.
Apparently fewer minority youths use computers, but those who do use them for longer
periods than do their white counterparts.
These relationships between media use and
race and ethnicity largely withstand controls
for socioeconomic status. It seems then, that
African American youths are particularly
attracted to screen media, especially television, and that the use of such media accounts
for the lion’s share of the differences attributable to race and ethnicity.27
Socioeconomic Status and Media Exposure
Reports of substantial differences in media
exposure as a function of socioeconomic status
are common, but recent research indicates
that the picture may be changing. Earlier
work found both parental education and
household income to be negatively related to
screen exposure in general and to television
exposure in particular,28 a pattern that has
been repeated more recently for national
samples of both younger and older youths.29
For example, in 2005 children from birth to
age six in households earning less than
$20,000 a year viewed 0:27 a day more
television than children in households
earning $75,000 or more, a pattern repeated
for youth with high school graduate and
college graduate parents. Similarly, the Kaiser
Family Foundation’s 1999 data indicated that
two- to eighteen-year-olds from households
earning more than $40,000 annually reported
significantly less exposure to television, to
videos and movies, and to video games, than
Reports of substantial
differences in media exposure
as a function of socioeconomic
status are common, but recent
research indicates that the
picture may be changing.
did their counterparts from households
earning less than $25,000, resulting (not
surprisingly) in less overall media exposure.
Children whose parents completed no more
than high school were exposed to more
screen media (especially television) and
reported significantly more total media
exposure than did their counterparts
whose parents had attained higher levels
of education.
Recently, however, the picture has become
clouded. The Kaiser study found no relationship between household income and either
screen media exposure or overall media exposure among eight- to eighteen-year-olds questioned in 2004.30 Rather, there emerged what
social scientists call a curvilinear relationship
between level of parent education and both
screen exposure and overall media exposure.
Youths whose parents completed college
reported the most media exposure, those
whose parents had some college education
reported the least exposure, and those whose
parents completed no more than high school
VOL. 18 / NO. 1 / S PR ING 2008
23
Donald F. Roberts and Ulla G. Foehr
fell in between (but nearer to the group that
had completed college). Because the share
of youngsters within each parental education category who used each of the media on
any given day did not differ, it appears that
although all young people watch screen media, those from the low- and high-education
subgroups watch for longer periods on any
given day.31
It is unclear why the power of socioeconomic
variables to predict exposure to electronic
media is waning—or, indeed, whether this
one fairly recent finding will be replicated.
Nevertheless, it is at least reasonable to
speculate that American households have
been so inundated by most media for so long
that economic barriers to access are no longer
a dominant issue; most low-income households have multiple TVs, video game players,
and music media. Moreover, social attitudes
toward the various media have become more
accepting; for example, highly educated parents may not be as critical of media content
as they once were. Both trends were noted
for television almost two decades ago.32
Gender and Media Exposure
Gender has not been shown to relate to differences in overall media exposure. However,
boys and girls do report differing exposure
to various individual media, although these
differences also depend on age. Rideout and
Hamel report that among young children,
boys spend more daily time than girls with
video games (0:09 versus 0:02), computers
(0:10 versus 0:06), and screen media overall
(1:42 versus 1:30).33 Among older youths,
the relationship holds for interactive games
(boys, 1:34; girls, 0:40), but there are no
gender differences in computer time, though
there are gender differences in how young
people use computers. Older girls, on the
other hand, report more daily exposure than
boys to audio media (boys, 1:29; girls, 2:00).
The overall result is no gender differences in
total media exposure.34
The “Household Media Environment” and Media Exposure
Earlier we noted an explosion in the array
of personal and portable media available to
today’s young people, ranging from PDMPs
to cell phones with Internet access, as well
as a migration of more “traditional” forms of
media to children’s bedrooms. Each of these
trends facilitates access to media, which in
turn affects media exposure. Each trend may
also indicate more positive family attitudes
toward media and media use than was the
case several decades ago. That is, parents
who allow or facilitate putting television sets
Table 3. Daily Media Exposure of Children 8–18, by Household Media Environment
Household media environment
Television
Videos and
movies
Audio
Video games
Computer
Television in bedroom
3:31
1:16
1:46
0:38
1:02
9:09
No television in bedroom
2:04
0:51
1:40
0:17
1:01
7:07
Household rules about television
2:18
1:07
1:30
0:18
0:50
7:07
No household rules about
television
2:58
1:01
2:19
0:28
1:21
8:57
High-television-orientation
3:58
1:20
2:06
0:45
1:14
10:22
Not high-television-orientation
2:46
1:09
1:37
0:28
0:54
7:57
Source: Adapted from Roberts, Foehr, and Rideout, Generation M (see table 1).
24
T H E F U T UR E OF C HI LDRE N
Total
Trends in Media Use
or personal computers in their children’s
bedrooms, or who acquiesce to or assist
their children’s acquisition of portable digital
media such as handheld video games or cell
phones, are likely to hold more positive attitudes toward media and media exposure in
general. These attitudes, in turn, may affect
young people’s media exposure.35
Recent work comparing media exposure times
of children and adolescents with and without
a television set in their bedroom reveals that
easy access substantially increases exposure,
even among very young children. One study
of children from birth to age six reports that
those with a television set in their bedroom
watch fifteen minutes more each day, and
another pegs the associated increase at
thirty minutes.36 As table 3 illustrates, among
eight- to eighteen-year-olds, the difference
approaches an hour and a half; youths with
no TV in their room report 2:04 daily viewing, while those with a TV claim 3:31 daily
viewing. It is also important to note that the
predictive power of a bedroom TV set is
not limited to television exposure. Victoria
Rideout, Elizabeth Vanderwater, and Ellen Wartella found that young children with
bedroom TVs also spend more time playing
video games, and Roberts, Foehr, and Rideout found that among older youths a bedroom
TV predicts more video game playing and
more video viewing, the result of which is two
hours a day more overall media exposure (see
table 3). Researchers find similar patterns of
increased exposure when they compare older
youths with and without a video game console in their bedroom and with and without a
computer in their bedroom.37
That the presence of each of these media—a
TV, a video game console, a computer—in a
young person’s bedroom predicts exposure to
several different media (hence to overall me-
dia exposure) suggests that something more
than merely easy access is likely at play. That
is, although a TV set in a child’s bedroom
certainly makes TV much easier to watch, its
location in the bedroom also probably points
to more positive or accepting attitudes toward
media in general. Some support for this possibility comes from evidence that children in
households where parents set rules about TV
viewing are exposed less not only to television, but also to most electronic media (see
table 3). Moreover, to the extent that parents
try to enforce such media-related rules, the
effect is even greater—in homes where the
rules are enforced, media exposure is significantly lower.38
Roberts, Foehr, and Rideout took the
“household media environment” idea one
step further by identifying “high-televisionorientation” households. They classified
children and adolescents from homes in
which the television was usually on during
meals, and was usually on during most of the
day even when no one was watching, and in
which parents made no attempt to control
television viewing as being from high-television-orientation households and found that a
full 25 percent of U.S. eight- to eighteenyear-olds lived in such households. As is clear
in table 3, young people from high-televisionorientation households report substantially
higher exposure to each of the electronic
media, resulting in more than two hours more
daily total media exposure than reported by
youth from households where the television
does not assume such a central position. In
other words, both easy household access to
media and a positive household orientation
toward media, especially television, operate
to increase the time young people spend with
media, hence the number of media messages
they encounter.
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Donald F. Roberts and Ulla G. Foehr
Psycho-Social Predictors of
Media Exposure
Researchers have examined several psychological variables related to young people’s media use, including mental ability or academic
performance, personal adjustment, and, more
recently, sensation-seeking.
Researchers have long noted a negative link
between television viewing and various
indicators of children’s intellectual abilities, a
link fairly consistently supported with measures ranging from IQ and academic achievement test scores to school grades and, more
Young people who are less
contented or less satisfied
with various aspects of their
lives tend to engage in higher
levels of media exposure than
do their more contented
counterparts.
recently, to children’s self-reported school
grades.39 The two Kaiser Family Foundation
studies conducted with older youths find
much the same pattern. That is, youngsters
who reported earning the lowest grades in
schools watch significantly more television
than do those who earn higher grades.40 The
1999 data also found a moderate negative
relationship between self-reported school
grades and most other electronic media
exposure, resulting in a significant negative
link between grades and total media exposure.
Somewhat surprisingly, in the 2004 data the
negative pattern for other media and for
overall media exposure is quite weak; that is,
self-reported grades are not strongly linked
26
T H E F U T UR E OF C HI LDRE N
with media exposure. Roberts and Foehr
speculate that perhaps media have become
such an integral part of most U.S. households
that differences in exposure once related to
academic performance are becoming attenuated.41 This possibility receives support from
their finding that while there was no change
from 1999 to 2004 in total media exposure
reported by kids receiving “poor” or “fair”
grades, among those who reported “good”
grades overall, total media exposure increased
by 0:43. That is, the difference in media
exposure previously related to school grades
was reduced to the point that it is no longer
statistically significant. It seems, then, that
although young people who achieve high
grades continue to spend less time with
media, the difference is not nearly as large as
has been found in previous research.
Several early studies of children’s television exposure found a negative link between
amount of viewing and what researchers variously label as “personal adjustment,” “social
adjustment,” or “contentedness.”42 In both
the United States and Great Britain, children
who were least secure, who had difficulties
making friends, or who experienced some
kind of family conflict tended to be among
the heaviest users of television. Indeed, the
negative relationships were so robust that
George Comstock argues that heavy media use became “recognized as a possible
symptom of personal maladjustment.”43 The
Kaiser Family Foundation studies, using
an “index of personal contentedness,” finds
much the same pattern for eight to eighteenyear-olds, although with some changes from
1999 to 2004. In 1999, less contented youths
reported significantly more exposure to all
media except the computer and audio media;
in 2004, the link remained negative but the
differences were statistically significant only
for audio media, video games, and overall
Trends in Media Use
media exposure. In general, then, recent
results dovetail fairly well with a substantial
literature demonstrating that young people
who are less contented or less satisfied with
various aspects of their lives tend to engage in
higher levels of media exposure than do their
more contented counterparts.
Light vs. Heavy Media Exposure
the 13 percent reporting more than one hour
of video gaming. Conversely, light exposure
was defined as one hour or less of TV daily
(34 percent of kids), no use of a computer
(45 percent), and no use of video games (58
percent). Youngsters classed as heavy users
of each of these three media consistently
reported higher levels of exposure to all
other media. Heavy TV users reported about
two hours more daily exposure to all other
media (excluding TV) than moderate or light
viewers—6:43, as against 4:31 and 3:57. For
heavy computer users and heavy video game
players, the difference in exposure to all
other media ranged from three to four hours
more daily. For heavy computer users, the
time reported was 9:07, as against 6:39 for
moderate users and 6:00 for light users. For
heavy, moderate, and light video game users,
the comparable figures were 10:58, 8:12, and
6:04. It is also worth noting that the pattern
holds for each individual medium as well as
for overall media exposure. For example,
young people classed as heavy computer
users spend more time watching TV, videos,
and movies, more time listening to radio and
to audio recordings, and more time playing
video games than either light or moderate
computer users spend with each of those
specific media.
As noted, the data summarized in table 2
provide scant support for the idea that time
spent with new media is displacing time
spent with older media. Rather, at least
among older youths (eight to eighteen years),
high exposure to one medium goes handin-hand with high exposure to most other
media. Roberts, Foehr, and Rideout created
groups of low, moderate, or high users of
television, of computers, and of video games,
classifying as heavy users the 20 percent of
youths reporting more than five hours of daily
TV exposure, the 16 percent reporting more
than one hour a day of computer use, and
The total media exposure reported by each of
the high-exposure groups is so high as to give
one pause. For example, focusing on heavy
users of television, if we add five hours of TV
viewing (the criterion used to define heavy
viewers) to the almost seven hours of “other”
electronic media time they report, then heavy
TV viewers are exposed to a minimum of just
under twelve hours of media content daily.
Similarly large numbers result when we conduct the same exercise for youngsters classed
as heavy users of computers (a minimum of
ten hours daily media exposure) or of video
The term sensation-seeking refers to individuals’ need to seek stimulation. Reasoning
that various kinds of media use, such as video
game playing, provide high stimulation, Roberts, Foehr, and Rideout examined the relationship between seventh- to twelfth-grade
students’ media use and scores on a sensation-seeking measure. Although they did not
find the expected link between sensationseeking and video game exposure, they did
find that compared with students classified
as low or moderate sensation seekers, high
sensation seekers reported significantly more
television exposure, more use of audio media,
and more total media exposure. Although the
between-group differences for other types of
media exposure were not reliable, high sensation seekers consistently reported higher
levels of exposure than their low and moderate sensation-seeking counterparts.44
VOL. 18 / NO. 1 / S PR ING 2008
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Donald F. Roberts and Ulla G. Foehr
games (twelve hours daily exposure). Such
high total media exposure raises an obvious
question: where could heavy users of TV,
video games, or computers possibly find ten
to twelve hours in their day to spend with
media? A large part of the answer appears to
reside in the media multitasking phenomenon—that is, the growing levels of concurrent
media use among U.S. youths.
Media Multitasking
In a recent examination of media multitasking, Ulla Foehr provides insights not only
about the level of concurrent media use, but
also about who is and is not media multitasking and which media are more likely to be
used concurrently with which other media.45
Foehr notes that a large majority of young
people—81 percent—report sharing at least
some of their media time among two or more
media concurrently. Wide variations, however, exist in how and how much young people
media-multitask. When asked how often
they use other media at the same time they
watch TV, 29 percent of seventh- to twelfthgraders say “most of the time” and another
30 percent reply “some of the time.” Asked
that question in relation to listening to music,
33 percent say “most of the time” and 30
percent, “some of the time”; in relation to using a computer, 33 percent reply “most of the
time” and 29 percent, “some of the time.” In
other words, for each of these three media,
a solid majority of young Americans mediamultitask at least some of the time, and from
a quarter to a third report concurrent media
use “most of the time.” Roughly one-fifth of
eight- to eighteen-year-olds say that they typically do not engage in concurrent media use.
Amount of media exposure strongly predicts
media multitasking. Young people who report
more exposure to media in general also
28
T H E F U T UR E OF C HI LDRE N
report more media multitasking. This is
hardly surprising. Arguably the two activities
can be conceived as two sides of the same
coin. For example, when Roberts, Foehr, and
Rideout classified seventh- through twelfthgraders as light, moderate, or heavy media
multitaskers, they found that substantially
greater shares of heavy media multitaskers
were also classed as heavy users of each of
the individual media.46 Thus, for example, 25
percent of heavy TV viewers (more than five
hours daily) but only 11 percent of light TV
viewers (one hour or less daily) were heavy
media multitaskers. Similarly, 33 percent of
heavy computer users but only 8 percent of
light computer users were heavy multitaskers.
Clearly, although some young people are
more likely than others to use several media
concurrently and some media invite multitasking more than others, the use of several
media at the same time is a growing phenomenon among U.S. youngsters—one deserving
of more attention.
Correlates of Media Multitasking
Both opportunity and environment play an
important role in concurrent media use.
Young people from households where the
television can be seen from the computer are
more likely to be media multitaskers than are
young people from households in which
computer placement does not allow TV
viewing. Not having a computer at all exerts a
negative influence. Youth from homes with no
computer are less likely to be media multitaskers, probably because the computer
promotes media multitasking more than any
other medium. Young people from high-television-orientation households (see table 3) are
also more likely to use several media concurrently than are those from low-televisionorientation households. In other words,
children from homes in which the television is
usually on, is on during dinner, and in which
Trends in Media Use
Table 4. Share of All Time Devoted to a
Given Medium Also Shared with Two or More
Other Media
Percent
Television
17
Audio media
33
Reading
35
Video games
41
Other computer activities
49
Homework on the computer
60
Computer games
67
Instant messaging
74
Visiting websites
74
E-mailing
83
Source: Ulla G. Foehr, Media Multitasking among American
Youth: Prevalence, Predictors, and Pairings (Menlo Park, Calif.:
Kaiser Family Foundation, 2006).
no rules govern TV use, are more likely to
media-multitask. On a more psychological
level, high sensation-seeking youngsters are
more likely than their low sensation-seeking
counterparts to be media multitaskers. Foehr
reasons that because high sensation-seekers
are averse to boredom and seek stimulating
experiences, they are more likely “to keep
multiple media ‘balls’ in the air at any one
time.” Finally, gender is the single demographic variable that predicts media multitasking. Girls report more concurrent media
exposure than boys. Although this finding
might seem to confirm the stereotype of
women as historically being multitaskers (that
is, juggling several household tasks while
caring for children), no research addresses
whether females are any more proficient at
multitasking when it comes to media use.
Media Pairings
Intuitively, it seems that some media should be
more amenable to multitasking than others;
most people sometimes read with music
playing or the TV on in the background. Some
media pairings also seem more reasonable
than others: listening to music and reading
text on a computer screen seem to go together; listening to music and watching television
or watching television and video gaming seem
more in conflict. Foehr’s analysis of young
people’s time-use diaries supports this line of
reasoning, but not always in ways one might
expect. Table 4 summarizes the share of total
time spent with each individual medium (or in
the case of the computer, on each different
computer activity) that is also shared with any
other medium.47 Somewhat surprisingly, given
how easy it seems to be to engage in “other
activities” while viewing, television is the least
shared medium. Only 17 percent of television
time is shared with other media, while a third
of time spent listening to music is shared with
other media, and 41 percent of video game
time is shared. Television time is highly likely
to be shared with a variety of non-media
activities, such as eating or doing household
chores. Indeed, Foehr finds that non-media
activities dominate as secondary activities
when the media activity is watching TV or
listening to music.
Although television ranks as the least likely
medium to be multitasked in terms of proportion of total time shared with other media, it is
important to note that television time so far
exceeds time devoted to most other media
that the 17 percent of TV time that is shared
is substantial so that television’s importance in
the multitasking mix should not be underestimated. Indeed, when each individual medium
is examined in terms of the proportion of time
it shares with each other medium, television
ranks as most likely to be multitasked. That is,
television is the medium most likely to be
paired with music listening, reading, video
gaming, and e-mailing and second most likely
to be paired with each of the other computer
activities. In other words, although when
watching television a young person is least
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Donald F. Roberts and Ulla G. Foehr
likely to use several media concurrently, when
a young person is media multitasking, television is the first or second most likely medium
to be involved.
Table 4 also indicates that the computer is at
the heart of the multitasking phenomenon.
When all computer activities are lumped
together to measure computer time, then the
computer looks comparable to such media
as music or print in terms of how much of
its time is shared (just under half). But when
each individual computer activity is examined
separately, most of the time it is used is typically shared with other media (frequently with
other computer activities). For example, the
proportion of shared computer activity time
ranges from 60 percent (doing homework on
the computer) to 83 percent (sending e-mail).
In other words, when young people use a
computer, they are likely engaged in secondary activities, other media activities dominate
as secondary activities, and another computer
activity is most likely to be paired with the
primary computer activity.
The computer truly appears to be a “media multitasking station.” Its capacity to
offer multiple windows on multiple activities concurrently drives the phenomenon.
And although we know of no empirical data
addressing the question, we can’t help but
wonder if the computer experience may not
also fuel young people’s interest in and ability
to engage in multiple information processing
activities even beyond computer activities.
Some Implications
Clearly, the label “Media Generation” fits
today’s young people. More than any past
generation, they have access to a wide, and
still expanding, array of media—in their
homes, in their rooms, and, with the emergence of miniaturization, in their backpacks
30
T H E F U T UR E OF C HI LDRE N
and pockets. They devote more time to media than to any other single activity with the
exception of sleep. Indeed, young Americans
today are so immersed in media that they
have become “media multitaskers.” Well over
half report using multiple media concurrently
“some” or “most” of the time, to the extent
that in 2004, eight- to eighteen-year-olds
reported media exposure levels (time spent
with media content) more than 25 percent
higher than media use levels (time spent with
media)—5:48 of daily media use resulting in
7:50 of content exposure.
Arguably, then, the headline covering the
findings from research on media exposure
over the past ten years could be that concurrent use of multiple media has become the
order of the day among young people. They
frequently listen while they watch while they
click and, sometimes at least, write.48 This
point is perhaps nowhere better illustrated
than in the words of a seventeen-year-old
boy quoted in a Pew Internet and American
Life study of teenage life online: “I multitask
every single second I am on-line. At this very
moment, I am watching TV, checking my
email every two minutes, reading a newsgroup about who shot JFK, burning some
music to a CD and writing this message.”49
Arguably, the emergence of digital media,
their portability, and the kinds of convergence
they have enabled are the driving force behind
the media multitasking phenomenon. As
high-speed connectivity has expanded the
communication capabilities of computers,
whether in the form of desktop PCs, laptops,
or, more recently, mobile phones (which have
rapidly morphed into pocket computers),
content that three decades ago was delivered
through distinctly different media can now be
accessed through a single instrument. As the
boy quoted above illustrates, for today’s young
Trends in Media Use
people some form of digital instrument often
serves as the gateway to both traditional and
new forms of print media (newspapers,
magazines, books, message boards, blogs, and
chatrooms), audio media (both music and talk
are streamed and downloaded), and audiovisual media (the latest mobile phone promotions trumpet anytime, anywhere access to
Arguably, then, the headline
covering the findings from
research on media exposure
over the past ten years could
be that concurrent use of
multiple media has become
the order of the day among
young people.
motion pictures, television programs, and
podcasts). And of course, each of these
traditional “mass media” windows shares space
concurrently with digital media’s enabling of
new and extended interpersonal connections—e-mail, instant messaging, blogging,
photo-sharing, or recording (some)one’s life on
any of a number of social networking sites,
such as MySpace and Facebook. Teenagers’
rapid adoption of these social functions not
only attests to the importance to them of social
contacts, but also seems to be changing adolescents (at least large numbers of them) from
traditional media consumers into real-time
media critics (it is not unusual for “Internet
buddies” to carry on an instant messaging
conversation about a TV program while
watching from different locations) and media
producers (of websites, fan fiction, YouTube
clips, and more).50
At the least, changes such as the convergence
of media into one technology that facilitates
concurrent access to multiple messages
points to a need to rethink how “media
exposure” is to be measured. Estimates of
time devoted to radio, television, newspapers,
or “the computer” no longer seem to capture
young people’s media behavior; what were
once conceived as separate activities seem no
longer to function independently. New
conceptualizations might take any of several
forms. They could focus on the functions
served by media exposure (diversion and
pleasure, information seeking, social networking). They could look at the type of
engagement different kinds of exposure
elicits (active responding as with a video
game; information-seeking as working on a
homework assignment; content creation, as
when constructing a MySpace page; less
active processing, as when watching a
situation comedy or music video). Or they
could classify exposure in terms of any of
several content classifications (for example,
fiction versus nonfiction, reality versus
fantasy, social versus nonsocial). Whatever
form new conceptualizations of media
exposure take, it seems clear that we can no
longer limit analyses of media exposure just
to classification by medium.
It is also important to keep in mind that
the young people’s media behaviors described here summarize averages. Even
when results are examined in terms of the
variables, such as age, gender, race, and
socioeconomic status, commonly used in
research, the results are based on averages.
The problem is that averages may conceal
a great deal of variation. Indeed, there may
be nothing more elusive than “the average
American child,” whether in terms of media
behavior or any other behavior. Although
it is true that substantial numbers of young
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Donald F. Roberts and Ulla G. Foehr
people report using multiple media concurrently “most of the time,” it is also true that
substantial numbers report that they “almost
never” media multitask. Similarly, although
20 percent of youths report more than five
hours of television viewing on any given day,
and another 45 percent report from one to
five hours, 35 percent watch less than one
hour (with almost 20 percent not watching
at all). And these kinds of findings hold even
within the various demographic subgroups.
For example, 31 percent of African American
youth report more than five hours of daily
television, but 16 percent report none at all.
Indeed, as the discussion of the digital divide
indicates, important differences remain in
young people’s access to at least some kinds
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T H E F U T UR E OF C HI LDRE N
of media. Our point is that even though
media are central and ubiquitous in the lives
of many young Americans, researchers have
good reason to focus more attention on those
who do not appear to be characterized by the
“Media Generation” sobriquet.
That said, anything to which the lion’s share
of U.S. youths devote more time than any
other waking activity warrants continued
scrutiny. That the media give American
youngsters almost instantaneous access to
more information than has ever been available to any previous generation—access that,
by the teen years, is generally unsupervised—
suggests that the scrutiny should be intense.
Trends in Media Use
Endnotes
1. Melvin L. DeFleur and Sandra Ball-Rokeach, Theories of Mass Communication, 5th ed. (New York: Longman, 1989).
2. Eric C. Newberger, Computer Use in the United States (U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports,
Department of Commerce, October, 1997) [www.census.gov/prod/99pubs/p.20-522.pdf]; Jennifer Cheeseman Day, Alex Janus, and Jessica Davis, Computer and Internet Use in the United States: 2003 (U.S.
Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, Department of Commerce, October, 2005) [www.census.gov/
prod/2005pubs/p.23–208.pdf].
3. Problems inherent in measuring media exposure are discussed by: George Comstock and Erica Scharrer,
Television: What’s On, Who’s Watching, and What It Means (San Diego: Academic Press, 1999); Donald
F. Roberts and Ulla G. Foehr, Kids and Media in America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004);
John P. Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey, Time for Life: The Surprising Ways Americans Use Their Time
(Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997).
4. Donald F. Roberts and others, Kids and Media at the New Millennium (Menlo Park, Calif.: Kaiser Family
Foundation, 1999) and Roberts and Foehr, Kids and Media in America (see note 3), report data on twothrough eight-year-olds gathered in 1999. Victoria J. Rideout, Elizabeth A. Vandewater, and Ellen A. Wartella, Zero to Six: Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers, and Preschoolers (Menlo Park, Calif.:
Kaiser Family Foundation, 2003), reports data gathered on children from birth to age six in 2003; Victoria
J. Rideout and Elizabeth Hamel, The Media Family: Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers,
Preschoolers, and their Parents (Menlo Park, Calif.: Kaiser Family Foundation, 2006) reports data gathered
on children from birth to age six in 2005.
5. Roberts and others, Kids and Media at the New Millennium (see note 4), and Roberts and Foehr, Kids and
Media in America (see note 3), provide data on older youths gathered in 1999; Donald F. Roberts, Ulla
Foehr, and Victoria Rideout, Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8–18-year-olds (Menlo Park, Calif.: Kaiser Family Foundation, 2005) reports data gathered in 2004. Inclusion of media-focused, time-use diaries is
an important element of these studies because they enable estimates of the proportion of time youngsters
use several media concurrently, an increasingly common media behavior among U.S. young people, raising
an array of new issues and questions.
6. Roberts, Foehr, and Rideout, Generation M (see note 5).
7. Nielsen Media Research, “Nielsen Study Shows DVD Players Surpass VCRs” (Press Release, December 19,
2007) (www.nielsenmedia.com/nc/portal/site/Public/menuitem.55dc65b4a7d5adff3f659361, [3/19/07]).
8. Amanda Lenhart, Mary Madden, and Paul Hitlin, Teens and Technology: Youth Are Leading the Transition
to a Fully Wired and Mobile Nation (Washington, D.C.: Pew Internet & American Life Project, July 27,
2005) [www.pewinternet.org/pdfs/Teens_Tech_July2005web.pdf].
9. Mary Story, Karen M. Kaphingst, and Simone French, “The Role of Child Care Settings in Obesity Prevention,” Future of Children 16, no. 1 (2006): 143–68, refers to apparently anecdotal evidence that children
spend more time with TV in child care homes than in child care centers.
10. Henry J. Becker, “Analysis and Trends of School Use of New Information Technologies (U.S. Congressional
Office of Technology Assessment, March, 1994) (www.gse.uci.edu/doehome/EdResource/Publications/
VOL. 18 / NO. 1 / S PR ING 2008
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Donald F. Roberts and Ulla G. Foehr
EdTechUse/C-TBLCNT.HTM [March 5, 2007]); Richard J. Noeth and Boris B. Volkov, “Evaluating the
Effectiveness of Technology in Our Schools” (Iowa City, Iowa: ACT Policy Report, 2004) (www.act.org/
path/policy/pdf/school_tech.pdf [March 21, 2007]); “State of the States,” Education Week 24 (April 5, 2005);
Basmat Parsad and Jennifer Jones, “Internet Access in U.S. Public Schools and Classrooms: 1994–2003,”
Education Statistics Quarterly 7 (2005): 1–2.
11. U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey (Department of Commerce, 2003) (www.census.gov/
population/www/socdemo/computer/2003.html).
12. Roberts, Foehr, and Rideout, Generation M (see note 5).
13. Parsad and Jones, “Internet Access in U.S. Public Schools and Classrooms: 1994–2003” (see note 10).
14. The Children’s Partnership, “Measuring Digital Opportunity for America’s Children” (Santa Monica, Calif.:
The Children’s Partnership, 2005) www.contentbank.org/AM/Template. cfm?Section= Research_From_
The_Childrens_Partnership&CONTENTID=8044&TEMPLATE=/CM/ContentDisplay.cfm.
15. See, for example, Jack Lyle and Heidi R. Hoffman, “Children’s Use of Television and Other Media,” in
Television and Social Behavior: Reports and Papers, vol. IV: Television in Day-to-Day Life: Patterns of Use,
edited by Eli Rubinstein, George Comstock, and John Murray (Rockville, Md.: U.S. Department of Health,
Education, and Welfare, 1972), pp. 129–256; Eleanor E. Maccoby, “Television: Its Impact on School
Children,” Public Opinion Quarterly 15 (1951): 421–44; Wilbur Schramm, Jack Lyle, and Edwin B. Parker,
Television in the Lives of Our Children (Stanford University Press, 1961).
16. Although some recent studies have asked youngsters how often they use several media at once, the media
use–media exposure distinction is possible only when research obtains measures of the amount of time
youth use several media concurrently. Roberts and his colleagues (see note 5) accomplished this by collecting week-long time-use diaries asking youth to report all daily media activities for each half hour from
6 a.m. until midnight for seven days.
17. Because Roberts, Foehr, and Rideout, Generation M (see note 5), included exposure to print media in their
examination of young people’s media use, their published estimates of total media use and exposure differ
somewhat from those reported here, which include only electronic media.
18. It should be noted, however, that exposure times for computers, video games, and “other” screen media
are not strictly comparable from 1999 to 2004, because the latter questionnaire included items not covered
in 1999 (for example, handheld video games, instant messaging, DVRs); Roberts, Foehr, and Rideout,
Generation M (see note 5).
19. Roberts, Foehr, and Rideout, Generation M (see note 5). For a review of studies that have looked at
displacement attributed to the introduction of television, see Diana C. Mutz, Donald F. Roberts, and
D. P. van Vuuren, “Reconsidering the Displacement Hypothesis: Television’s Influence on Children’s Time
Use,” Communication Research 20 (1993): 51–74.
20. Lenhart, Madden, and Hitlin, Teens and Technology (see note 8).
21. George Comstock, Television and the American Child (San Diego, Calif.: Academic Press, 1991), reviews a
number of early studies of young children’s television viewing that illustrate lower exposure among younger
children.
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T H E F U T UR E OF C HI LDRE N
Trends in Media Use
22. Because data for younger and older children come from different data sources, results for the two age
groupings have been kept separate in all tables and figures.
23. This pattern, based on a “constructed curve” derived from abstracting findings from numerous small-scale,
non-representative samples, was first noted by George Comstock and others, Television and Human
Behavior (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978), and was elaborated by Comstock, Television and the
American Child (see note 21). Roberts and Foehr, Kids and Media in America (see note 3), using data
gathered by Roberts, Foehr, and Rideout, Kids and Media at the New Millennium (see note 4), directly
tested both TV viewing and overall media exposure and found that the bi-modal pattern holds remarkably
well.
24. Peter G. Christenson and Donald F. Roberts, It’s Not Only Rock and Roll: Popular Music in the Lives of
Adolescents (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Hampton Press, 1998), give even higher estimates. They argue that
because music listening is to adolescents typically a secondary or even tertiary activity, it is frequently overlooked when adolescents attempt to account for their time, and is therefore undercounted.
25. Lenhart, Madden, and Hitlin, Teens and Technology (see note 8).
26. Rideout and Hamel, The Media Family (see note 4).
27. Roberts, Foehr, and Rideout, Generation M (see note 5); Roberts and others, Kids and Media at the New
Millennium (see note 4). Also see A. F. Albarran and D. Umphrey, “An Examination of Television Motivations and Program Preferences by Hispanics, Blacks, and Whites,” Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic
Media 37 (1993): 95–103; Aletha C. Houston and others, Big World, Small Screen: The Role of Television
in American Society (University of Nebraska Press, 1992); J. P. Tangney and Seymour Feshbach, “Children’s
Television Viewing Frequency: Individual Differences and Demographic Correlates,” Personality and
Social Psychology Bulletin 14 (1988): 145–58.
28. Comstock, Television and the American Child (see note 21).
29. Roberts and others, Kids and Media at the New Millennium (see note 4); Roberts, Foehr, and Rideout,
Generation M (see note 5); Comstock and Scharrer, Television: What’s On, Who’s Watching, and What It
Means (see note 3).
30. Both Roberts and others, Kids and Media (see note 4) and Roberts, Foehr, and Rideout, Generation M
(see note 5) used federal estimates of median community income for the zip code area of each participating
school as their proxy for household income.
31. Roberts, Foehr, and Rideout, Generation M (see note 5).
32. Comstock and Scharrer, Television: What’s On, Who’s Watching, and What It Means (see note 3), reviews
this trend.
33. Rideout and Hamel, The Media Family (see note 4).
34. Roberts, Foehr, and Rideout, Generation M (see note 5). Christenson and Roberts, It’s Not Only Rock and
Roll (see note 24), in their review of adolescents’ use of popular music, found that since the 1970s girls have
consistently reported more exposure than boys to music media.
35. Such a scenario is supported by at least one recent study of young children’s parents. Rideout and Hamel,
The Media Family (see note 4), found that not only do today’s parents see the media as important educaVOL. 18 / NO. 1 / S PR ING 2008
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Donald F. Roberts and Ulla G. Foehr
tional tools, but they also report that they are more likely to witness their children imitating positive than
negative behaviors observed in the media.
36. Rideout, Vanderwater, and Wartella, Zero to Six (see note 4); Rideout and Hamel, The Media Family (see
note 4).
37. Roberts, Foehr, and Rideout, Generation M (see note 5).
38. Ibid.
39. See, for example, Schramm, Lyle, and Parker, Television in the Lives of our Children (see note 15); Mark
Fetler, “Television Viewing and Academic Achievement,” Journal of Communication 34 (1987): 104–18.
For extended reviews of the relationship between various measures of academic performance and television exposure see Comstock, Television and the American Child (see note 21); P. A. Williams and others,
“The Impact of Leisure-Time Television on School Learning,” American Educational Research Journal 19
(1982): 19–50.
40. Although concern has been voiced that self-reported grades produce inflated estimates, the ordinal strength
of the measure has received validation. Sanford M. Dornbusch and others, “The Relation of Parenting Style
to Adolescent School Performance,” Child Development 58 (1987): 1244–57, report a
correlation of r=.77 between self-reported grades and actual grade point average.
41. Roberts and Foehr, Kids and Media in America (see note 3).
42. See, for example, Hilde T. Himmelweit, A. N. Oppenheim, and Pamela Vince, Television and the Child
(London: Oxford University Press, 1958); Eleanor E. Maccoby, “Why Do Children Watch Television?”
Public Opinion Quarterly 18 (1954): 239–44; Schramm, Lyle, and Parker, Television in the Lives of Our
Children (see note 15); J. P. Tangney, “Aspects of the Family and Children’s Television Viewing Content
Preferences,” Child Development 59 (1988): 1070–79.
43. Comstock, Television and the American Child (see note 21), p. 33.
44. Roberts, Foehr, and Rideout, Generation M (see note 5).
45. Ulla G. Foehr, Media Multitasking among American Youth: Prevalence, Predictors, and Pairings (Menlo
Park, Calif.: Kaiser Family Foundation, 2006); also see Ulla G. Foehr, “Media Multitasking among American Youth: Prevalence, Predictors, and Pairings” (Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, Stanford University,
Stanford, Calif., 2006).
46. Respondents were assigned as light, moderate, or heavy media multitaskers on the basis of responses to
questions asking young people how often they used several media concurrently when using each of four
specific media: television, print, audio, computers. Heavy media multitaskers were those who answered
“most of the time” to three items and at least “some of the time” to a fourth; Roberts, Foehr, and Rideout,
Generation M (see note 5).
47. That is, the denominator in each of these calculations is the total of all time spent using a medium, whether
as a primary or secondary activity; the numerator is the total amount of time spent with that medium that is
also shared with any other medium.
48. It should be noted that there is still debate over whether and the degree to which media multitasking occurs
simultaneously or serially (albeit with extremely rapid serial switching). That is, how much processing of
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Trends in Media Use
information from distinct channels occurs at the same time and how much is the result of switching from
one channel to another has not been resolved. The problem is compounded because “medium” is not coextensive with “channel,” and both are independent of content. Television (a medium) includes at least two
channels, visual and audio, and possibly a third (for example, when a character reads aloud printed material
presented on the screen). Moreover, processing is influenced by content as well as channel (or medium).
Thus, for example, while simultaneous processing might operate when watching and hearing a television
character read printed material aloud, serial processing might be required when reading a magazine and
concurrently watching an unrelated television program (or even listening to music). See, for example, D.
E. Meyer and D. E. Kieras, “A Computational Theory of Executive Cognitive Processes and Multiple-Task
Performance, Part I, Basic Mechanisms,” Psychological Review 104, no. 1 (1997): 3–65.
49. Amelia Lenhart, Lee Rainie, and Oliver Lewis, Teenage Life Online: The Rise of the Instant-Messaging
Generation and the Internet’s Impact on Friendships and Family Relationships (Washington, D.C.: Pew
Internet and American Life Project, 2001).
50. Amelia Lenhart and Mary Madden, Teen Content Creators and Consumers (Washington, D.C.: Pew
Internet and American Life Project, 2005) report that over half of U.S. twelve- to seventeen-year-olds have
created website content.
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Media and Young Children’s Learning
Media and Young Children’s Learning
Heather L. Kirkorian, Ellen A. Wartella, and Daniel R. Anderson
Summary
Electronic media, particularly television, have long been criticized for their potential impact on
children. One area for concern is how early media exposure influences cognitive development
and academic achievement. Heather Kirkorian, Ellen Wartella, and Daniel Anderson summarize the relevant research and provide suggestions for maximizing the positive effects of media
and minimizing the negative effects.
One focus of the authors is the seemingly unique effect of television on children under age two.
Although research clearly demonstrates that well-designed, age-appropriate, educational television can be beneficial to children of preschool age, studies on infants and toddlers suggest that
these young children may better understand and learn from real-life experiences than they do
from video. Moreover, some research suggests that exposure to television during the first few
years of life may be associated with poorer cognitive development.
With respect to children over two, the authors emphasize the importance of content in mediating the effect of television on cognitive skills and academic achievement. Early exposure to ageappropriate programs designed around an educational curriculum is associated with cognitive
and academic enhancement, whereas exposure to pure entertainment, and violent content in
particular, is associated with poorer cognitive development and lower academic achievement.
The authors point out that producers and parents can take steps to maximize the positive effects
of media and minimize the negative effects. They note that research on children’s television
viewing can inform guidelines for producers of children’s media to enhance learning. Parents
can select well-designed, age-appropriate programs and view the programs with their children
to maximize the positive effects of educational media.
The authors’ aim is to inform policymakers, educators, parents, and others who work with
young children about the impact of media, particularly television, on preschool children, and
what society can do to maximize the benefits and minimize the costs.
www.futureofchildren.org
Heather Kirkorian is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst. Ellen Wartella is a professor,
executive vice chancellor, and provost at the University of California–Riverside. Daniel Anderson is a professor at the University of
Massachusetts–Amherst.
VOL. 18 / NO. 1 / S PR ING 2008
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S
Heather L. Kirkorian, Ellen A. Wartella, and Daniel R. Anderson
ince television first appeared in
the nation’s living rooms in the
middle of the twentieth century,
observers have voiced recurrent
concern over its impact on viewers, particularly children. In recent years,
this concern has extended to other electronic
screen media, including computers and
video game consoles. Although researchers
still have much to learn, they have provided
information on the links between electronic
media, especially television, and children’s
learning and cognitive skills. The message is
clear: most (if not all) media effects must be
considered in light of media content. With
respect to development, what children watch
is at least as important as, and probably more
important than, how much they watch.
Until the 1980s, social
science researchers had only
an implicit theory of how
viewers watched television.
In this article we review media research with
an emphasis on cognitive skills and academic
achievement in young children. We begin by
arguing that by age three, children are active
media users. We then discuss important
aspects of child development that highlight
the debate over whether children younger
than two should be exposed to electronic
media, emphasizing the apparent video
deficit of infants and toddlers in which they
learn better from real-life experiences than
they do from video. Next we look at research
on media effects in three areas: associations
between media use and cognitive skills,
particularly attention; experimental evidence
for direct learning from educational media;
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T H E F U T UR E OF C HI LDRE N
and associations between early media use and
subsequent academic achievement. We close
with some suggestions for both media
producers and parents for enhancing and
extending the potentially beneficial effects of
electronic media use in children, particularly
those who are of preschool age.
Children as Active Media Users
Until the 1980s, social science researchers
had only an implicit theory of how viewers
watched television. Analysts regarded television viewing, particularly by young children,
as being cognitively passive and under the
control of salient attention-eliciting features
of the medium such as fast movement and
sound effects. Jerome Singer formalized
this theory, proposing that the “busyness” of
television leads to a sensory bombardment
that produces a series of orienting responses
that interferes with cognition and reflection.
As a result, children cannot process television
content and therefore cannot learn from it.1
Others proposed similar views, arguing that
programs such as Sesame Street provided
nothing that could be truly educational.2
Aletha Huston and John Wright proposed
a somewhat different theory of attention
to television, positing that the features of
television that drive children’s attention may
change as a child ages. Specifically, they
claimed that in infancy, perceptually salient
features of television such as movement and
sound effects drive attention. With age and
experience, however, children are less influenced by perceptual salience and are able to
pay greater attention to informative features
such as dialogue and narrative.3
Around the same time, Daniel Anderson and
Elizabeth Lorch created a complementary
model of children’s attention to television,
drawing on evidence that television viewing is
Media and Young Children’s Learning
Table 1. Selected Popular Television Programs and DVD Series for Young Children
TV programs
Description
Network
Barney & Friends
Evoking a preschool setting, Barney the dinosaur teaches songs and dances to young
children. The show focuses heavily on pro-social themes of sharing, empathizing, helping
others, and cooperating.
PBS
Blue’s Clues
A human host encourages viewers at home to help solve a mystery with his dog friend,
Blue. The show is often repetitive and encourages interactivity by asking viewers to find
clues and solve puzzles.
Nickelodeon
Bob the Builder
Bob the Builder and his construction crew face building, renovation, and repair challenges. The series often focuses on identifying a problem and making a plan to solve the
problem.
PBS
Dora the Explorer
Featuring a bilingual Latina girl as the lead, Dora and her friends go on quests and help
others, encouraging viewers to help out through their own actions or by telling her what
she needs to know. In addition to highlighting traditional educational content such as
color and shapes, Dora teaches language by repeating words and phrases in English and
Spanish.
PBS
Sesame Street
Combining puppetry, live action, and animation, this long-running series focuses on a
wide range of topics including the alphabet, numbers, emotion management, conflict resolution, music, dance, and healthy lifestyles.
PBS
Teletubbies
Centering on four colorful characters, the Teletubbies speak in a baby-like language and
learn through play. The Teletubbies have televisions in their stomachs that show clips of
real children from around the world. This program is targeted at toddlers.
PBS
Thomas & Friends
Based on a book series, Thomas the Tank Engine and his engine friends learn to work
hard and be cooperative with each other.
PBS
The Wiggles
Featuring a four-man singing group for children, episodes of The Wiggles include songs
and skits focused on solving a problem. The Wiggles encourages children to sing songs
and move their bodies to music.
Disney
DVD series
Description
Producer
Baby Einstein
Series content covers wide range of topics including music, art, language, poetry, and
science. Targeted at children starting at one month.
Disney
Brainy Baby
Educational series highlighting range of subjects including alphabet, art, music, shapes,
foreign languages, and right and left brain development. Targeted at children starting at
nine months.
Brainy Baby
Company
Sesame Beginnings
Features baby versions of the Muppets from Sesame Street. The focus is on encouraging
interactions between child and caregivers. Targeted at children starting at six months.
Sesame Workshop
based on active cognition. They argued that
attention in children at least as young as two
is guided in large part by program content.
For example, preschool children pay more
attention to normal video clips than to those
that have been edited to make them incomprehensible, for example by using foreign
dubs of the video clips or randomizing the
order of shots within the clips.4 Moreover,
preschool-age children pay more attention to
children’s programs than to commercials even
though commercials are more densely packed
with formal features.5 Children learn strategies for watching television by using their
knowledge of formal features to guide atten-
tion.6 Finally, to understand typical programs
that use standard video montage such as cuts,
pans, and zooms, children engage in a variety
of inferential activities while viewing.7
Developmental Considerations
Although children are active viewers of
television by preschool age, research suggests
that this may not be true of infants and toddlers. In this section we summarize research
on attention to, comprehension of, and learning from video by children under two.
Attention to Electronic Media
Until recently, research on media effects
VOL. 18 / NO. 1 / S PR ING 2008
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Heather L. Kirkorian, Ellen A. Wartella, and Daniel R. Anderson
did not focus on infants and toddlers. Early
studies reported that children younger than
two paid little attention to television, perhaps
because little television was produced for
them.8 The early 1990s, however, saw a virtual
explosion in the production of television
Research suggests that
children do not comprehend
the symbolic nature of
television until they reach
the preschool years.
programs and videos designed for infants and
toddlers, and some research now suggests
that infants and toddlers pay close attention
to these videos.9 The increase in infantdirected media products has led to debate
over whether infants and toddlers should be
exposed to electronic media. (See table 1 for
a description of some popular media products
for young children.)
Although the underlying mechanisms driving
attention to video appear to be the same in
adults and infants as young as three months,
some research has found differences in the
ways in which younger and older viewers
watch professionally produced video.10 For
example, one study observed patterns of eye
movements in one-year-olds, four-year-olds,
and adults while they watched Sesame Street
and found systematic differences between
infants and older viewers. Infants’ visual fixations, for example, were more variable and
less sensitive to changes in content.11 In another experiment, children aged six, twelve,
eighteen, and twenty-four months watched
normal and distorted segments of Teletubbies,
a program designed for viewers in this age
42
T H E F U T UR E OF C HI LDRE N
range.12 In one distorted video, shots were
randomly ordered; in the other, utterances
were reversed to produce backwards speech.
The experiment found that although older
children (eighteen and twenty-four months)
looked for longer periods at the normal video
segment than at the distorted segments,
younger children (six and twelve months) did
not appear to discriminate between the two.
These findings suggest that children under
eighteen months may not understand, and
thus learn from, television in the same way as
do older children. In particular, they may be
inattentive to dialogue and may fail to integrate comprehension across successive shots
in filmic montage.
Perception of Video
One area of cognitive development influencing children’s ability to learn from television is
the perception of video itself. Some research
suggests that children do not begin to discriminate between television and real-life events
until the early preschool years. For example,
Leona Jaglom and Howard Gardner reported
qualitative observations of three children from
age two to five. They noted that at age two,
the children recognized that the television
world was contained within the television set
but not until they reached age three or four
did they realize that the television world could
not affect them—that, for example, television
characters could not enter their bedrooms.
The authors concluded that sometime between ages two and three, children develop
an understanding of the representational
nature of video.13
In a similar vein, John Flavell and several
colleagues conducted a series of experiments
with preschool-age children to investigate the
distinction they made between real objects
and those represented on video. Younger
children were less likely to correctly answer
Media and Young Children’s Learning
questions regarding the uses of objects on
television. For example, three- and four-yearold children saw a video image of a bowl of
popcorn and were asked if the popcorn would
fall out of the bowl when the television set
was turned upside down. The four-year-olds
recognized that televised images represent
real objects while three-year-olds failed to
discriminate between televised images and
real objects, claiming that the popcorn would
fall out of the bowl if the television was
turned upside down.14
Other research focusing on children’s ability
to discriminate between televised programs
and commercials has generally demonstrated
that children younger than five cannot consistently make that distinction.15 Even when
young children correctly label programs and
commercials, they may still think that the
commercial is part of or connected to the
program.16 Moreover, although children may
be able to identify commercials based on
perceptual cues by age five, their ability to
recognize the persuasive intent and inherent
bias in advertising does not appear to develop
until age seven or eight.17
Together this research suggests that children
do not comprehend the symbolic nature
of television until they reach the preschool
years; evidence of comprehending and learning from television at younger ages than
about two-and-a-half is meager. And it may
take several more years before children are
able to make more specific discriminations
with respect to program content.
Learning from Electronic Media
Many infant-directed media products make
explicit claims about their educational value;
others, with titles such as Baby Einstein,
keep their claims implicit. But analysts know
little about the extent to which children two
years and younger learn from commercially
produced television programs. Experiments
on learning from video have repeatedly found
that infants and toddlers learn better from
real-life experiences than from video. This
so-called video deficit disappears by about
age three, when learning from video becomes
robust.18
Support for the video deficit hypothesis
comes from several lines of research. Studies
of language learning have demonstrated that
children aged two and older can learn vocabulary from television.19 Unlike older children,
however, infants and toddlers are less likely to
learn from video. One experiment found that
children younger than two learned vocabulary better from real-life experiences than
from equivalent video presentations.20 Other
experimental research demonstrates that
television models are less effective than live
ones in preserving discrimination of foreign
phonemes (speech sounds) in infants.21
Additional support for the video deficit
hypothesis comes from studies examining
infants’ and toddlers’ ability to imitate specific
actions, such as an adult demonstrating actions
with a puppet. In an experiment comparing
toddlers’ imitation of live and mediated (that
is, videotaped) models, Rachel Barr and
Harlene Hayne reported that twelve-, fifteen-,
and eighteen-month-olds were more likely to
perform a behavior after viewing unmediated,
live models than after viewing either the video
model or no model. Only the oldest age group
was more likely to perform the behavior after
seeing the video model than the control group
after seeing no modeled behavior.22 A more
recent experiment made similar findings for
children at twenty-four and thirty months.23
It is clear that, unlike infants and toddlers,
preschool-age children can readily imitate
behaviors seen on video.24
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Heather L. Kirkorian, Ellen A. Wartella, and Daniel R. Anderson
Another line of research relevant to infants’
and toddlers’ ability to transfer from video to
real-world problems involves object-retrieval
tasks. In these experiments, the child either
sees a toy hidden in an adjacent room through
a window or watches the toy being hidden
on television. In a study of children aged two
and two-and-a-half, Georgine Troseth and
Judy DeLoache reported that both age groups
were able to find the toy on every trial when
the hiding event was seen through a window
but less often when the event was watched
on television, particularly for the younger
participants.25 Kelly Schmitt and Daniel Anderson reported similar findings with overall
performance at chance levels (25 percent) for
children aged two and about 50 percent for
children aged two-and-a-half in the television
task but nearly perfect at both ages for the
window task. Three-year-olds did well on both
tasks.26 Marie Schmidt, Alisha Crawley-Davis,
and Daniel Anderson attempted to minimize
the influence of perceptual cues and simplify
the task in two experiments. In the first, a
sticker was hidden underneath a cutout on
a felt-board that had the same dimensions
as the television screen. In the second, an
experimenter simply told the child, either
live or on closed-circuit television, where the
object was hidden. Performance of two-yearolds in both tasks was still at chance levels in
the television conditions.27 Georgine Troseth
and Judy DeLoache attributed this deficit to
a poor understanding of symbolic representations or to prior expectations about television
as “unreal.” Recent work by Troseth shows
that if toddlers have interactive experiences
with television—if, for example, they converse with an experimenter via closed-circuit
video—the video deficit in the object-retrieval
task can be overcome.28
Overall, the bulk of the research supports
a video deficit for learning by infants and
44
T H E F U T UR E OF C HI LDRE N
toddlers even though it can be overcome
by an interactive relationship. Researchers
have not yet demonstrated any learning, or
lack of it, from commercial baby videos. One
recent study evaluated the effect of a series
of baby videos designed to foster parent-child
interactions. Compared with parents who
watched a comparison series (Baby Einstein),
parents who watched videos from the Sesame
Beginnings series showed more engaged
interactions with their twelve- to twenty-onemonth-old children if they had coviewed the
videos at home on multiple occasions.29 Although there is as yet no evidence that babies
learn anything from baby videos, apparently
coviewing parents can.
To our knowledge no research has yet examined computer and interactive game use in
infants and toddlers, although these products
are now being developed for children as
young as six months of age and some parents
report that their infants and toddlers use
these media regularly. Based on a recent survey of parents, the Kaiser Family Foundation
estimated that 61 percent of children under
age two use screen media (television, videos,
DVDs) on a typical day and 43 percent of
infants and toddlers watch television every
day.30 Given a relative dearth of empirical research on infants and toddlers and a dispute
over whether they even comprehend screen
media, for the remainder of this article we
will focus on educational media designed for
preschoolers and older children. Research is
urgently needed, however, to determine how
media influence infants and toddlers.
Media Effects on Attention and
Other Cognitive Skills
Among their other charges, critics have
often accused television of being a negative
influence on the development of children’s
cognitive skills. Much of the debate about the
Media and Young Children’s Learning
effect of television on cognition concerns the
development of attention. The most common
hypothesis has been that frequent changes in
scenes and content disrupt young children’s
ability to sustain attention.31 One reanalysis of
longitudinal data collected during the 1980s
found a small correlation between early
television exposure at ages one and three
years and subsequent symptoms of attention
problems at age seven.32 Findings from studies since then have been mixed.33
One possible mediating factor in the link between early television viewing and attention
skills is program content. Most correlational
studies do not measure the types of programs
to which children are exposed, making it
impossible to draw any conclusions regarding
content effects. However, a recent correlational study suggested that content is an
important mediator of the relation between
exposure to television before age three and
subsequent attentional problems. Specifically,
early exposure to violent and non-educational
entertainment programming was positively
associated with later symptoms of attention
deficit but exposure to educational television
was not related to attentional problems.34
One early study of the effects of television
on behavior in preschoolers experimentally
varied the type of content children viewed.
The study compared preschoolers who were
exposed to prosocial programs (Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood), neutral films, and violent
cartoons (Batman, Superman).35 Children
were observed first for a baseline period of
three weeks, then for a four-week television
viewing period, and finally for two weeks
after the viewing period. Findings from this
study suggest that the link between television
viewing and children’s attentional skills is mediated by content. Children who viewed the
violent cartoons showed decreases in mea-
sures of self-regulation, whereas those who
viewed the prosocial programs showed higher
levels of task persistence, rule obedience, and
tolerance of delay relative to baseline measures and to children in the neutral viewing
condition. It is important to note that the
three categories of programs likely differed
not only in content but with respect to formal
features such as format (animation versus
live-action) and pace. It is difficult within the
context of this study to isolate the links between content and self-regulatory skills, but
the findings clearly indicate that television as
a medium does not have an indiscriminate
negative effect on attentional skills. In fact,
several experiments have found that television can teach specific attention skills and
strategies.36
Educational television
programs, those designed
around a curriculum with a
specific goal to communicate
academic or social skills,
teach their intended lessons.
Many allegations regarding the effect of
television on children’s attention skills focus
on the fast pace of programs such as Sesame
Street.37 The only study to experimentally
vary the pace of a television program observed preschoolers during tasks of perseverance after the children either viewed an
edited version of Sesame Street, composed
of either particularly fast-paced segments or
particularly slow-paced segments, or read
books with parents. Analysts found no group
differences in measures of distractibility or
impulsiveness following either reading or
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Heather L. Kirkorian, Ellen A. Wartella, and Daniel R. Anderson
television viewing.38 This finding suggests that
there is no immediate link between program
pacing and attentional skills. Nonetheless,
longitudinal research manipulating program
content is needed to experimentally investigate the causal effect of television on attention in preschoolers.
Discussions of computer use and video games
have been more optimistic, with the relevant
research seeming to support a link between
both and cognition. The research generally
focuses on cognitive skills other than attention. One study, for instance, conducted an
experiment with fifth graders to investigate
the effects of video game experience on
spatial skills in children. Subjects were
randomly assigned to an experimental group
that played a spatial game, such as navigating
a marble along tracks through space, or a
control group that played a computerized
word game that was not spatial. Although the
study found no between-group differences on
pre-test measures of spatial skill, it found
significantly higher post-test scores for the
spatial video game group than for the control
group.39 Similar results have been reported
by others.40
Overall, the research suggests that electronic
media might have an effect on attention skills.
Television, especially when viewed by children
younger than age two, may have a negative
effect on attention development, though the
evidence is relatively weak. Concern over
television exposure before age two has been
echoed in research on cognitive development
more generally.41 Content appears to be an
important mediator, and specific television
content has been linked to attention skills.
Studies of interactive media have found that
video game play may enhance spatial cognition, but research is lacking on other cognitive
skills, particularly attention development.
46
T H E F U T UR E OF C HI LDRE N
Learning from Educational Media
Educational television programs, those
designed around a curriculum with a specific
goal to communicate academic or social skills,
teach their intended lessons. But because
most research assessing the effectiveness of
educational curricula is proprietary or not
published in archival sources, most program
evaluations go unseen by the general public.
Nevertheless, reviews of this research
demonstrate the effectiveness, both shortterm and long-term, of curriculum-based
Preschoolers who view
Sesame Street have higher
levels of school readiness than
those who do not.
programming for children in areas as diverse
as literacy, mathematics, science, and social
skills.42 Academics have also published
research evaluating the effectiveness of
educational programs. We present examples
of both correlational and experimental
evaluative studies.
Blue’s Clues is a television program focusing
on social and cognitive problem-solving skills
in preschoolers. In a two-year program
evaluation, Jennings Bryant and others
followed preschoolers who were regular
viewers of the show and preschoolers who
were not because the program did not air in
their town of residence. The two groups of
children did not differ on measures of problem solving and flexible thinking at the start of
the study. At the end of the two-year observation period, however, regular viewers of Blue’s
Clues outperformed their non-viewing peers
in many measures and were more successful
and systematic in their problem solutions.
Media and Young Children’s Learning
Solving the problems required careful
planning, a trait frequently modeled and
described in the program.43 In an experimental study, preschool-age children were randomly assigned to watch one episode of Blue’s
Clues, or the same episode five times, or one
episode of a different program. Not surprisingly, children who viewed the Blue’s Clues
program showed better comprehension of the
specific information presented in the show,
and children who watched the program five
times showed better comprehension than
those who saw it only once. Moreover, Blue’s
Clues viewers scored higher than non-viewers
on problem-solving tasks different from those
directly presented in the program, particularly
when they viewed the program repeatedly.44
Together these studies demonstrate immediate and potentially long-lasting effects of
Blue’s Clues on problem-solving skills,
especially for regular viewers of the program.
though as yet evidence is insufficient to draw
solid conclusions. Although media may have
contributed to the trend, many other explanations, such as increases in preschool enrollment, also are plausible.47
Some television programs designed for young
children focus on a variety of academic and
social skills to help prepare children for
entering school. One such program is Sesame
Street, which has been by far the most studied
children’s program, probably because of
Sesame Workshop’s commitment to research,
the program’s longevity and popularity, and
its long history of both criticism and praise.
Correlational research demonstrates a positive
association between early exposure to Sesame
Street and school readiness.45 That is, after analysts statistically control for a range of other
factors known to affect school readiness, they
find that preschoolers who view Sesame Street
have higher levels of school readiness than
those who do not. Nationally, there is some
evidence for an increase in school readiness
among preschoolers in recent years.46 One
plausible explanation for this trend may be
increased early exposure to television, particularly educational programs for young children,
To summarize, it is clear that children can
learn from educational media. Television programs designed with a specific goal to teach
academic or social skills can be effective with
potentially long-lasting effects. Although
scarce, research on interactive media software suggests similar results. We turn now to
a discussion of associations between overall
media use in early childhood and subsequent
measures of overall achievement.
Other forms of electronic media also have
been used for education. For instance, some
professionally produced, curriculum-based
Internet websites for preschoolers are associated with television shows such as Sesame
Street or Dora the Explorer, though no public
domain research is available on the effect of
these websites. Researchers have conducted
studies on the use of educational software at
home. For example, one experiment reported
significant gains in the effectiveness of educational software when children were allowed
to use the software at home as well as in
school.48 Similar benefits have been reported
by other researchers.49
Early Media Use and
Academic Achievement
Among the most common criticisms of children’s media use is that it displaces other activities believed to be more beneficial such as
outdoor play, homework, and leisure reading.
Historically, however, television viewing has
largely displaced other entertainment media
such as comic books, radio, and cinema.50 For
the most part, television viewing does not
appear to displace more educationally valuVOL. 18 / NO. 1 / S PR ING 2008
47
Heather L. Kirkorian, Ellen A. Wartella, and Daniel R. Anderson
able activities, except perhaps in the case of
children and youth with extraordinarily high
television exposure or of early school-age
children learning to read, typically in first and
second grade.51 Potential displacement effects
of relatively new, interactive media are less
clear because users can access multiple media
platforms simultaneously, using a computer,
for example, while watching television.52
Many studies of the effect of television viewing
on academic achievement examine correlations between some measure of television
exposure and some contemporaneous measure
of achievement.53 In these studies, correlations are often negative, indicating greater
achievement with lower exposure to television,
but the associations are also often quite small.
Moreover, findings of correlational studies can
be difficult to interpret. It may be that television viewing lowers academic achievement,
but it is equally plausible that academically
challenged children are more drawn to television as a leisure-time activity. Moreover, some
third variable that has not been accounted
for may explain both television exposure and
achievement. In the case of television viewing, for example, children from lower-income
homes tend to watch more television and
also to score lower on measures of academic
achievement than do their higher-income
counterparts.54 In this example, both television exposure and academic achievement may
be the result of family income. In fact, when
correlational studies take into account other
important factors, they often fail to find significant associations between television exposure
and academic achievement in children.
Detailed analyses of the relation between
television exposure and academic achievement suggest that this relation is not straightforward. For example, a meta-analysis of
twenty-three studies reported that the aver48
T H E F U T UR E OF C HI LDRE N
age correlation between total viewing time
and academic achievement was only -.05, a
tiny association. More accurately described,
the relation was what social scientists call
curvilinear. That is, in moderation (one to two
hours a day), television viewing was positively
associated with academic achievement, but
higher rates of television viewing were associated with decreasing achievement.55 Other
studies have found a similar pattern.56
One important factor in the association
between television viewing and academic
achievement may be the age of the viewer.
The optimal amount of television exposure
may vary with age, possibly as a function of
the types of programs viewed at different
ages.57 Few studies have directly investigated
the association between achievement and
television viewing in infants and toddlers.
In one study, however, viewing before age
three was negatively related to later academic
achievement whereas viewing at three years
and beyond was positively related to subsequent achievement.58
It is also important to note that most of the
studies mentioned thus far did not distinguish between the types of content viewed.
The lack of a straightforward association
between television exposure and academic
achievement may be at least partially mediated by the content of the programs viewed.
For instance, although one study reported
a generally curvilinear relation with highest achievement for children watching one
to two hours a day, these moderate viewers
were also more likely to report watching
educational programming whereas heavier
viewers were more likely to report entertainment viewing.59 Indeed, several more recent
studies have found that achievement is linked
to early exposure to specifically educational
television programming.
Media and Young Children’s Learning
One of the most extensive studies of this kind
reported that viewing educational programming at age five was positively associated
with high school grades in English, math,
and science. Early exposure to educational
programming was also positively linked with
a host of other factors such as leisure time
reading and involvement in extracurricular
activities.60 In another longitudinal study,
the effect of television exposure between six
and thirty months of age depended on the
content viewed. For example, early exposure
to programs such as Blue’s Clues and Dora
the Explorer was positively linked with subsequent vocabulary and expressive language
whereas viewing Teletubbies was negatively
linked with performance on these measures.61
On its face, these findings contradict results
indicating little language learning from video
in children under two. It is possible, however,
that the findings are attributable not to learning from programs but rather to self-selection
such that children who have well-developing
language skills prefer to watch different
programs than their more slowly developing peers. Given the correlational nature of
this study, it is impossible to know for certain
what produced these findings.
Although watching educational programs can
have academic and social benefits, watching
other types of content can have drastically
different results. For instance, longitudinal
correlational research has demonstrated a
negative association between early exposure to violent video content and academic
achievement.62
Not all non-educational television programs
have explicitly negative content such as
violence, but research on the links between
academic achievement and general entertainment content is less clear. Although children
can learn spontaneously from entertainment
content, some longitudinal studies report
negative associations between academic
achievement and viewing entertainment (as
opposed to educational) media.63 Specific
information learned spontaneously from
viewing entertainment does not appear to
have the same cumulative long-term benefit
as viewing curriculum-based educational
programming.
Educational programs
are positively associated
with overall measures of
achievement and with
potentially long-lasting
effects, while purely
entertainment content,
particularly violent content,
is negatively associated with
academic achievement.
With respect to interactive media such as
video games and the Internet, findings are
mixed, almost entirely correlational (allowing
no conclusive cause-effect associations), and
seldom conducted with young children. Although one study reported a negative association between video game use and academic
achievement in adolescents, others report
a positive association between achievement
and computer and Internet use at home.64
Though these few studies may suggest that
video games are negatively linked with
achievement whereas computers and Internet are positively linked with achievement,
additional research is needed to systematically investigate this potential difference in
outcome.
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Heather L. Kirkorian, Ellen A. Wartella, and Daniel R. Anderson
To summarize, when studies control for important confounding variables such as income
and parent education, they often fail to find
significant linear relations between television
viewing and subsequent achievement. In fact,
the association appears to be curvilinear, with
achievement increasing to a peak at low levels
of television viewing (one to two hours a day),
and then declining with heavier viewing. That
To maximize the cognitive
resources available to children
to process educational
content, one study suggests
that producers integrate
narrative and educational
content as much as possible.
said, the most important mediator appears to
be content of the programs viewed. Educational programs are positively associated
with overall measures of achievement and
with potentially long-lasting effects, while
purely entertainment content, particularly
violent content, is negatively associated with
academic achievement. Age may also be an
important mediator. Too few studies have
been conducted with interactive media such
as video games and computers to examine
content effects systematically. Nonetheless, as
noted in the previous section, software with
an educational curriculum can have a positive
influence on learning.
Production Techniques to
Maximize Educational Benefits
of Electronic Media
Producers of children’s educational media
can do several things to maximize the poten50
T H E F U T UR E OF C HI LDRE N
tial benefits to children. In this section we
briefly discuss a few important mediators of
the effectiveness of educational media.
Attention
Children cannot learn from educational
messages to which they do not pay attention.
Moreover, viewers learn more from television
programs when they can pay sustained, unbroken attention.65 Researchers have identified several means of maximizing children’s
attention to a program, some having to do
with program content, others with formal features such as camera techniques and sound
effects. As noted, one way to increase attention to a program is to maximize comprehensibility of the content, a topic we discuss in
the next section.66
At least by the preschool years, children use
formal features of media—those characteristics that can be described with minimal
reference to content—to guide attention.
For example, cuts between shots, camera
pans, and sound effects are considered to
be formal features. One study found that
formal features differ in the extent to which
they elicit, maintain, terminate, and suppress
preschool children’s looks at the television.
For example, child voices are likely to elicit
looks from inattentive viewers whereas adult
male voices are likely to suppress looks.
The authors of the study interpreted their
findings as demonstrating learned associations between formal features and types
of content.67 Children, for instance, often
associate child voices with child-directed
programming and adult male voices with
content for adults. The attention-directing
effect of formal features may thus change
with age and experience, consistent with
Huston and Wright’s theory.68 Such theories
generate some interest in understanding
how infants and toddlers respond to formal
Media and Young Children’s Learning
features, though the only such study to date
concluded that infants, toddlers, and older
children responded similarly to a few visual
formal features.69 That is, the same features
appear to elicit and maintain attention in all
young viewers from infancy at least through
the preschool years. Although viewers of
all ages respond to formal features, Huston
and Wright’s theory predicts that content
becomes increasingly important with age and
formal features consequently less important except insofar as they are used to help
process content. Moreover, the finding that
attention in children under age two is driven
partly by formal features does not necessarily mean that they comprehend video. It is
more likely that such young children respond
automatically to the saliency and unfamiliarity of formal features.
Comprehension
Just as children cannot understand an educational message to which they do not pay
attention, they cannot learn from content
that they do not understand. Shalom Fisch
proposed what he called the capacity model
of children’s comprehension of television
programs based on the limited cognitive
resources people have available for processing information at any given moment.70 Fisch
makes a distinction between a program’s
narrative content—its story—and its educational content—its informative messages—
and emphasizes the potential competition
between the two types of content for the
cognitive resources needed to process the
program. To maximize the cognitive resources available to children to process educational content, Fisch suggests that producers
integrate narrative and educational content
as much as possible, making the educational
message a central part of the ongoing story.
For example, characters may have to solve a
particular problem before advancing to the
next chapter in the story. In this way, narrative and educational content can capitalize on
the same resources rather than compete for
them. Although Fisch’s presentation of the
capacity model focused on educational television in particular, it can easily be applied to
educational, interactive media as well.
Repetition
One reason why media can be such a powerful educational tool is that content can be
easily and cheaply repeated. Literal repetition of episodes can enhance comprehension
and subsequent learning. We have already
noted the experimental study comparing
preschoolers who watched one episode of
Blue’s Clues with those who watched the
same episode once a day on five consecutive
days. In that study, attention to the episode
remained high and relatively constant over
the course of five presentations while comprehension for program content increased
with repeated exposure to the episode.
Children also increasingly interacted with the
content (in terms of audience participation)
as the episode was repeated.71 Similar
benefits of literal repetition have been reported in other studies.72 Moreover, the Blue’s
Clues experiment found that transfer of
learning from the specific examples presented in the program to different problems with
similar solutions increased as a function of
program repetition.
Viewer Characteristics
Some studies of media effects suggest that
a variety of viewer characteristics, including
but not limited to intelligence, socioeconomic
status, and gender, can mediate the effects of
media on learning and academic achievement.
To the extent that producers of children’s media can take these characteristics into account
during program design and production, they
may enhance educational value. For example,
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Heather L. Kirkorian, Ellen A. Wartella, and Daniel R. Anderson
several correlational studies suggest that the
negative impact of heavy television viewing
on academic achievement may be stronger
for girls or for individuals with higher intelligence.73 Other studies suggest that television
viewing may have differential effects on children from different socioeconomic groups.
Specifically, television viewing is associated
with higher achievement in children from
lower-income homes and lower achievement
in children from higher-income homes.74 A
longitudinal study that separately analyzed
different content types found that the positive
association between exposure to educational
programs at age five and later achievement
was significantly stronger for boys while the
negative association between violent content
and later achievement was stronger for girls.
The authors interpreted this finding in the
context of socialization. For example, because
socialization of girls generally places more
emphasis on academics, early exposure to
educational programs may help boys become
relatively more prepared for school.75 Although these studies are often correlational
and rarely conducted for the express purpose
of investigating individual differences such as
race or gender, they highlight some possible
mediators of the effects of media on children.
Transfer of Learning
Direct learning of specific information from
educational media is certainly useful, but a
goal of most (if not all) educational initiatives
is to empower children to apply what they
have learned to real-life problems. Thus
children must transfer to the real world what
they learn from the media context (for
example a television program set in a fantasy
environment). Researchers now know
relatively little about transfer of learning in
young children, particularly with respect to
television and interactive media, though some
evidence suggests that even preschoolers can
52
T H E F U T UR E OF C HI LDRE N
transfer video information to real-life problems.76 In a discussion of ideal conditions for
transfer from television based on transfer of
learning and analogical reasoning in children
more generally, Fisch argues that transfer can
be maximized not only by repeating the
educational messages in the course of the
episode but also by varying the contexts
surrounding each presentation. He suggests
that presenting the same lesson, such as a
specific problem-solving strategy, several
times using different types of examples can
increase the flexibility of a child’s mental
representation of that strategy, thus enhancing the child’s ability to accurately select and
apply it in different real-life situations.77
Parent Coviewing and Mediation
Just as media producers can increase the
educational value of electronic media, so
parents and other caregivers can also play an
important role in increasing the effectiveness
of educational media. Coviewing adults, for
example, can enhance the effectiveness of
educational programming by drawing attention to the most important aspects of the
program and by extending lessons presented
in the program. Some studies suggest that
coviewing with a parent or other adult may
increase a child’s learning from educational
television, particularly when the coviewer actively mediates by explicitly drawing attention
to the program and by asking and answering
questions.78 Although some studies fail to find
a benefit of adult coviewing or mediation, to
our knowledge no evidence suggests a negative link between such parent involvement
and learning from television. With respect
to interactive media, findings are mixed.
Although learning from educational software
may be enhanced when an adult provides
feedback or extends the lessons, it seems that
children still need to be free to control the
interactive experience themselves to maintain
Media and Young Children’s Learning
interest in the activity.79 Taken together, adult
coviewing and mediation are most likely to
have a positive effect on learning from educational media.
Educational Media in Schools
Although most research on electronic media
focuses on use at home, some initiatives are
evaluating the use of educational media in
the classroom. Efforts have been made to
create school curricula that integrate educational television programs, and a massive set
of evaluations of such initiatives is now under
way.80 Ready to Learn, a public broadcasting initiative to enhance school readiness
through educational television programs
and online resources, offered workshops for
parents and educators showing how to extend
lessons from television programs through
practice and repetition. A five-year evaluation of Ready to Learn found a modest but
positive link between the workshops and the
time adults spent coviewing PBS programs
and reading books that extended lessons in
the programs.81 Although analysts found no
evidence that children’s language and cognitive abilities benefited from the coviewing,
the findings nevertheless hold some promise.
The apparent benefits of adult mediation may
provide a new area for extending the lessons
of educational media.
Conclusions
Many studies have linked media use with
cognitive skill development and academic
achievement, with most thorough studies
strongly suggesting that content is the most
important mediating factor in that relation.
Although the finding is particularly true for
television, it is likely to be important for
interactive media as well. There is strong
evidence that children older than two learn
from educational media, and there is moderate evidence that exposure to educational
television during the preschool years is
positively linked with various measures of
academic achievement even ten years later.
Moderate evidence also suggests that early
exposure to purely entertainment content,
and media violence in particular, is negatively
associated with cognitive skills and academic
achievement. Research findings regarding the
benefits associated with exposure to highquality, age-appropriate, educational media
offer producers of child-directed media an
important opportunity to capitalize on the
time that children older than two spend using
these media. In fact, both producers and
parents can take steps to maximize the
positive effects of media and minimize
negative ones. Research should guide the
production of programs that foster learning
and transfer. Moderate evidence suggests that
parents can also maximize the benefits of
media by selecting age-appropriate, educational programs and coviewing with their
children.
Our review of media effects research is based
largely on studies of young children of
preschool age and older. Substantially less
research is available on media exposure in
children younger than two, and what little
there is strongly suggests that learning from
media by infants and toddlers may be different than it is for older children. Children
under two suffer from a video deficit such that
they learn substantially less from video than
from comparable real-life experiences.
Moreover, weak but nonetheless worrying
evidence suggests a negative association
between exposure to television younger than
age two and later cognitive development.
Given the dramatic increase in media now
being produced for infants and toddlers, it has
become particularly important to understand
the effect of media during the first few years
of life.
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Heather L. Kirkorian, Ellen A. Wartella, and Daniel R. Anderson
Taken together, the research indicates that
electronic media are powerful influences
on the lives of contemporary children. With
advances in technology such as larger screens
that provide images in high definition, threedimensional surround sound, and greater
possibilities for interaction, the power of
media will likely only increase for the foresee-
54
T H E F U T UR E OF C HI LDRE N
able future. The influences can be both for
good and for ill. Researchers are beginning
to understand which aspects of media should
be reduced and which enhanced, but further
research is required. Ultimately, however, the
question is whether society has the ability and
will to enhance the positive aspects of media
and reduce the negative.
Media and Young Children’s Learning
Endnotes
1. J. L. Singer, “The Power and Limits of Television: A Cognitive-Affective Analysis,” in The Entertainment
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2. J. Healy, Endangered Minds: Why Our Children Don’t Think (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990).
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of Television: Research on Attention and Comprehension, edited by J. Bryant and D. R. Anderson (New
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Comprehensibility on Preschool Children’s Visual Attention to Television,” Child Development 52 (1981):
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(1986): 239–56.
5. K. L. Schmitt, K. D. Woolf, and D. R. Anderson, “Viewing the Viewers: Viewing Behaviors by Children
and Adults during Television Programs and Commercials,” Journal of Communication 53 (2003): 265–81.
6. T. A. Campbell, J. C. Wright, and A. C. Huston, “Form Cues and Content Difficulty as Determinants
of Children’s Cognitive Processing of Televised Educational Messages,” Journal of Experimental Child
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7. R. Smith, D. R. Anderson, and C. Fischer, “Young Children’s Comprehension of Montage,” Child Development 56 (1985): 962–71.
8. D. R. Anderson and others, “Television Viewing at Home: Age Trends in Visual Attention and Time with
TV,” Child Development 57 (1986): 1024–33; D. R. Anderson and S. R. Levin, “Young Children’s Attention
to Sesame Street,” Child Development 47 (1976): 806–11.
9. R. Barr and others, “Television Exposure during Infancy: Patterns of Viewing, Attention, and Interaction,”
poster presented at the Biennial Meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Tampa,
Fla., April 2003; T. A. Pempek and others, “The Impact of Baby Videos,” paper presented at the biannual
meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Boston, Mass., March 2007.
10. For a review of the underlying mechanisms driving attention to video, see J. E. Richards and D. R. Anderson, “Attentional Inertia in Children’s Extended Looking at Television,” in Advances in Child Development
and Behavior, vol. 32, edited by R. V. Kail (Amsterdam: Academic Press, 2004), pp. 163–212.
11. H. L. Kirkorian, Age Differences in Eye Movements during Video Viewing, Dissertation, University of
Massachusetts–Amherst, 2007.
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poster session presented at the biannual meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development,
Boston, March 2007.
13. L. Jaglom and H. Gardner, “The Preschool Television Viewer as Anthropologist,” in Viewing Children
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Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1981), pp. 9–30.
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Heather L. Kirkorian, Ellen A. Wartella, and Daniel R. Anderson
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48 (2005): 505–22.
19. L. R. Naigles and E. T. Kako, “First Contact in Verb Acquisition: Defining a Role for Syntax,” Child
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9096–101.
22. R. Barr and H. Hayne, “Developmental Changes in Imitation from Television during Infancy,” Child
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25. G. Troseth and J. DeLoache, “The Medium Can Obscure the Message: Understanding the Relation between
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Media and Young Children’s Learning
26. K. L. Schmitt and D. R. Anderson, “Television and Reality: Toddlers’ Use of Visual Information from
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27. M. E. Schmidt, A. M. Crawley-Davis, and D. R. Anderson, “Two-Year-Olds’ Object Retrieval Based on
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28. G. Troseth, “TV Guide: Two-Year-Old Children Learn to Use Video as a Source of Information,” Developmental Psychology 39 (2003): 140–50; G. Troseth, M. M. Saylor, and A. H. Archer, “Young Children’s Use
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29. Pempek and others, “The Impact of Baby Videos” (see note 9).
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Preschoolers, and Their Parents (Menlo Park, Calif.: The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, 2006).
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33. C. Obel and others, “Does Children’s Watching of Television Cause Attentional Problems? Retesting the
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G. Salomon and A. Cohen, “Television Formats: Mastery of Mental Skills and the Acquisition of Knowledge,”
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37. Singer, “The Power and Limits of Television” (see note 1).
38. D. R. Anderson, S. R. Levin, and E. P. Lorch, “The Effects of TV Program Pacing on the Behavior of
Preschool Children,” Educational Communication & Technology 25 (1977): 159–66.
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40. P. A. McClurg and C. Chaille, “Computer Games: Environments for Developing Spatial Cognition?”
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41. F. J. Zimmerman and D. A. Christakis, “Children’s Television Viewing and Cognitive Outcomes: A Longitudinal Analysis of National Data,” Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 159 (2005): 619–25.
42. J. Bryant, A. F. Alexander, and D. Brown, “Learning from Educational Television Programs,” in Learning
from Television: Psychological and Educational Research, edited by M. J. A. Howe (London: Academic
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43. J. Bryant and others, Effects of Two Years’ Viewing of “Blue’s Clues” (Tuscaloosa, Ala.: Institute for
Communication Research, University of Alabama, 1999).
44. Crawley and others, “Effects of Repeated Exposures” (see note 36).
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Children and Sesame Street, edited by S. M. Fisch and R. T. Truglio (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum
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46. K. Chandler and others, Statistics in Brief: Home Literacy Activities and Signs of Children’s Emerging
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Gaps in School Readiness,” Future of Children 15, no. 1: 169–88.
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R. Shute and J. Miksad, “Computer Assisted Instruction and Cognitive Development in Preschoolers,”
Child Study Journal 27 (1997): 237–53.
50. H. Himmelweit, A. Oppenheim, and P. Vince, Television and the Child (London: Oxford, 1958); J. Murray
and S. Kippax, “Children’s Social Behavior in Three Towns with Differing Television Experience,” Journal
of Communication 28 (1978): 19–29; D. C. Mutz, D. F. Roberts, and D. P. van Vuuren, “Reconsidering
the Displacement Hypothesis: Television’s Influence on Children’s Time Use,” Communication Research
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N.J.: Ablex, 1991); W. Schramm, J. Lyle, and E. Parker, Television in the Lives of Our Children (Stanford
University Press, 1961).
51. E. A. Vandewater and others, “When the Television Is Always On: Heavy Television Exposure and Young
Children’s Development,” American Behavioral Scientist 48 (2005): 562–77; R. S. Corteen and T. M.
58
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Media and Young Children’s Learning
Williams, “Television and Reading Skills,” in The Impact of Television: A Natural Experiment in Three
Communities, edited by T. M. Williams (Orlando, Fla.: Academic Press, 1986); C. M. Koolstra and T. H. A.
van der Voort, “Longitudinal Effects of Television on Children’s Leisure-Time Reading: A Test of Three
Explanatory Models,” Human Communication Research 23 (1996): 4–35.
52. S. Coffey and H. Stipp, “The Interactions between Computer and Television Usage,” Journal of Advertising
Research 37 (1997): 61–67; U. G. Foehr, Media Multitasking among American Youth: Prevalence, Predictors, and Pairings (Menlo Park, Calif.: The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, 2006).
53. P. A. Williams and others, “The Impact of Leisure-Time Television on School Learning: A Research
Synthesis,” American Educational Research Journal 19 (1982): 19–50.
54. G. Comstock and H. Paik, Television and the American Child (Orlando, Fla.: Academic Press, 1991).
55. Williams and others, “The Impact of Leisure-Time Television” (see note 53).
56. M. Fetler, “Television Viewing and School Achievement,” Journal of Communication 34, no. 2 (1984):
104–18; S. B. Neuman, Literacy in the Television Age: The Myth of the TV Effect (Norwood, N.J.: Ablex,
1991); M. Razel, “The Complex Model of Television Viewing and Educational Achievement,” Journal of
Educational Research 94 (2001): 371–79.
57. Razel, “The Complex Model of Television Viewing” (see note 56).
58. Zimmerman and Christakis, “Children and Television Viewing” (see note 41).
59. Fetler, “Television Viewing” (see note 56).
60. D. R. Anderson and others, “Early Childhood Television Viewing and Adolescent Behavior,” Monographs
of the Society for Research in Child Development, 68, Serial No. 264 (2001), 1–143.
61. D. L. Linebarger and D. Walker, “Infants’ and Toddlers’ Television Viewing and Language Outcomes,”
American Behavioral Scientist 48 (2005): 624–25.
62. Anderson and others, “Early Childhood Television Viewing” (see note 60); L. R. Huesmann and L. Eron,
Television and the Aggressive Child: A Cross-National Comparison (Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum,
1986).
63. For studies showing how children can learn from entertainment content, see D. E. Field and D. R. Anderson, “Instruction and Modality Effects on Children’s Television Attention and Comprehension,” Journal
of Educational Psychology 77 (1985): 91–100; G. Noble, “Social Learning from Everyday Television,”
in Learning from Television: Psychological and Educational Research , edited by M. J. Howe (London:
Academic Press, 1983), pp. 1–30. One such longitudinal study is Anderson and others, “Early Childhood
Television Viewing” (see note 60).
64. M. B. Harris and R. Williams, “Video Games and School Performance,” Education 105 (1985): 306–09;
P. Attewell and J. Battle, “Home Computers and School Performance,” The Information Society 15
(1999): 1–10; L. A. Jackson and others, “Does Home Internet Use Influence the Academic Performance
of Low-Income Children?” Developmental Psychology 42 (2006): 429–35.
65. J. J. Burns. and D. R. Anderson, “Attentional Inertia and Recognition Memory in Adult Television Viewing,”
Communication Research 20 (1993): 777–99.
66. Anderson and others, “The Effects of TV Program Comprehensibility” (see note 4).
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67. D. R. Anderson and others, “Watching Children Watch Television,” Attention and Cognitive Development,
edited by G. Hale and M. Lewis (New York: Plenum, 1979), pp. 331–61.
68. Huston and Wright, “Children’s Processing of Television” (see note 3).
69. K. L. Schmitt, “Infants, Toddlers, and Television: The Ecology of the Home,” Zero to Three 22 (2001):
17–23.
70. S. M. Fisch, “A Capacity Model of Children’s Comprehension of Educational Content on Television,”
Media Psychology 2 (2000): 63–91; Fisch, Children’s Learning from Educational Television (see note 42);
A. D. Baddeley, Working Memory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986).
71. Crawley and others, “Effects of Repeated Exposures” (see note 36).
72. H. Skouteris and L. Kelly, “Repeated-Viewing and Co-Viewing of an Animated Video: An Examination of
Factors that Impact on Young Children’s Comprehension of Video Content,” Australian Journal of Early
Childhood 31 (2006): 22–30.
73. Williams and others, “The Impact of Leisure-Time Television” (see note 53); T. Z. Keith and others,
“Parental Involvement, Homework, and TV Time: Direct and Indirect Effects on High School Achievement,” Journal of Educational Psychology 78 (1986): 373–80.
74. Comstock and Paik, Television and the American Child (see note 54); Fetler, “Television Viewing and
School Achievement” (see note 56).
75. Anderson and others, “Early Childhood Television Viewing” (see note 60).
76. Crawley and others, “Effects of Repeated Exposures” (see note 36); S. M. Fisch, Transfer of Learning
from Educational Television: Near and Far Transfer from Cyberchase, poster presented at the biennial
meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Atlanta, Ga., April, 2005; T. V. Hodapp,
“Children’s Ability to Learn Problem-Solving Strategies from Television,” Alberta Journal of Educational
Research 23 (1977): 171–77.
77. Fisch, Children’s Learning from Educational Television (see note 42); for a complete review of this model
and relevant research on transfer of learning more generally, see S. Fisch, H. L. Kirkorian, and D. R.
Anderson, “Transfer of Learning in Informal Education: The Case of Television,” in Transfer of Learning
from a Modern Multidisciplinary Perspective, edited by J. Mestre (Greenwich, Conn.: Information Age
Publishing, 2005), pp. 371–93.
78. L. K. Friedrich and A. H. Stein, “Prosocial Television and Young Children: The Effects of Verbal Labeling
and Role Playing on Learning and Behavior,” Child Development 46 (1975): 27–38; P. M. Valkenburg,
M. Krcmar, and S. de Roos, “The Impact of a Cultural Children’s Program and Adult Mediation on
Children’s Knowledge of and Attitudes towards Opera,” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 42
(1998): 315–26.
79. S. W. Haugland, “The Effect of Computer Software on Preschool Children’s Developmental Gains,”
Journal of Computing in Childhood Education 3 (1992): 15–30; Shute and Miksad, “Computer Assisted
Instruction” (see note 49); S. L. Calvert, B. Strong, and L. Gallagher, “Control as an Engagement Feature
for Young Children’s Attention to and Learning of Computer Content,” American Behavioral Scientist 48
(2005): 578–89.
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Media and Young Children’s Learning
80. S. Ball and G. A. Bogatz, Reading with Television: An Evaluation of “The Electric Company” (Princeton,
N.J.: Educational Testing Service, 1973).
81. K. Boller and others, Using Television as a Teaching Tool: The Impacts of Ready to Learn Workshops on
Parents, Educators, and the Children in Their Care (Princeton, N.J.: Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.,
2004).
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Media and Attention, Cognition, and School Achievement
Media and Attention, Cognition, and
School Achievement
Marie Evans Schmidt and Elizabeth A. Vandewater
Summary
Marie Evans Schmidt and Elizabeth Vandewater review research on links between various
types of electronic media and the cognitive skills of school-aged children and adolescents. One
central finding of studies to date, they say, is that the content delivered by electronic media is
far more influential than the media themselves.
Most studies, they point out, find a small negative link between the total hours a child spends
viewing TV and that child’s academic achievement. But when researchers take into account
characteristics of the child, such as IQ or socioeconomic status, this link typically disappears.
Content appears to be crucial. Viewing educational TV is linked positively with academic
achievement; viewing entertainment TV is linked negatively with achievement.
When it comes to particular cognitive skills, say the authors, researchers have found that electronic media, particularly video games, can enhance visual spatial skills, such as visual tracking,
mental rotation, and target localization. Gaming may also improve problem-solving skills.
Researchers have yet to understand fully the issue of transfer of learning from electronic media.
Studies suggest that, under some circumstances, young people are able to transfer what they learn
from electronic media to other applications, but analysts are uncertain how such transfer occurs.
In response to growing public concern about possible links between electronic media use and
attention problems in children and adolescents, say the authors, researchers have found evidence
for small positive links between heavy electronic media use and mild attention problems among
young people but have found only inconsistent evidence so far for a link between attention
deficit hyperactivity disorder and media use.
The authors point out that although video games, interactive websites, and multimedia software
programs appear to offer a variety of possible benefits for learning, there is as yet little empirical
evidence to suggest that such media are more effective than other forms of instruction.
www.futureofchildren.org
Marie Evans Schmidt is a research associate at the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston. Elizabeth A. Vandewater is an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences at the University of Texas–Austin.
VOL. 18 / NO. 1 / S PR ING 2008
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L
Marie Evans Schmidt and Elizabeth A. Vandewater
ike their elders, America’s youth
have an almost dizzying assortment of entertainment technology from which to choose.1
Children and adolescents,
however, are a special media audience, in
part because they are developmentally vulnerable and in part because they are among
the earliest adopters and heaviest users of
entertainment technology.2 Adolescents in
particular have widely adopted the use of
digital media for daily life activities. Indeed,
the stereotypical view of many Americans is
that teenagers spend their lives immersed in
electronic media. While adolescents are doing
homework on the computer, with a wordprocessing program open for text, they are
surfing the Internet. Simultaneously they are
instant messaging with friends about events at
school, about who likes whom, who “dissed”
whom, or what a pain the homework assignment is. Meanwhile, television is on in the
background, and they are listening to music
on their iPods. At least some evidence confirms this picture, as Donald Roberts and Ulla
Foehr describe in their article in this volume.
Though concerns about the influence of
media and technology on American youth
are many and varied, especially prominent
are fears that they impair cognitive development and academic achievement. Critics of
television have long blamed the medium for
various ills, including declines in standardized
test scores, mental inactivity, and reduced
attention and concentration.3 Video games,
computers, and the Internet have drawn
similar charges.4
In this article, we examine empirical evidence
regarding the links between television and
other electronic media, on the one hand,
and learning and cognitive development in
children and adolescents, on the other. We
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T H E F U T UR E OF C HI LDRE N
review research findings, in turn, on achievement, language and symbol systems, visual
and spatial skills, problem-solving skills,
attention, and, finally, hypertext. Some areas
have generated a fair amount of theory and
research; others, very little. Interestingly,
evidence that contradicts or supports existing assumptions has often had little effect
on proclamations, policy, and punditry on
this topic. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion about how electronic media influence
children’s learning. Our goal is to summarize
what is known—and what is not—about
how these media shape adolescents’ cognitive development, as well as to identify those
areas in urgent need of additional empirical
research.
Electronic Media and Achievement
Researchers investigating the influence of
media have found modest negative links, or
none at all, between the total time children
spend viewing television and their school
achievement. A review of twenty-three studies, varying across several measures, found an
overall weak negative association (median =
-.06) between television viewing and achievement.5 Moderate TV viewing—one to ten
hours a week—was positively associated with
achievement (compared with no television
at all), whereas heavier viewing—more than
eleven hours a week—was negatively linked
with achievement (-.09).6 Numerous correlational studies, with large samples, have found
similar small negative effects of total time
spent watching TV on achievement.7
Many studies have found what social scientists
call curvilinear relations between hours of
TV viewed and achievement. In other words,
up to a certain threshold number of hours
viewed, TV viewing is linked positively with
achievement; above that threshold the link
becomes negative. A meta-analysis of more
Media and Attention, Cognition, and School Achievement
than 1 million students by Micha Razel suggests that the optimal number of hours of TV
viewed daily decreases as children get older;
for a nine-year-old two hours a day is optimal,
whereas for a seventeen-year-old it is half
an hour.8
Research that takes into account relevant
characteristics of the children under study,
such as their IQ and socioeconomic status,
typically finds no significant link between
hours of TV viewing and achievement.9 IQ,
in particular, plays a large role in the association between TV watching and achievement;
students with lower IQ scores, for example,
watch more television, on average.10
The amount of time spent viewing television also appears to influence achievement
for children from different socioeconomic
backgrounds in different ways. Watching a lot
of television is negatively linked with achievement for advantaged children.11 But TV viewing is positively associated (or not associated
at all) with achievement for disadvantaged
children or those with limited proficiency in
English.12 George Comstock and Haejung
Paik interpret these findings as meaning that
television viewing and academic achievement
are negatively associated when TV displaces
cognitively enriching experiences, but
positively associated when it provides such
experiences.13
When researchers examine the relative
importance of media content and total time
spent with media, they find that content matters more. For example, empirical evidence
strongly supports the notion that high-quality
educational programming has positive benefits for children’s academic skills, academic
engagement, and attitudes toward learning.14
The evidence is particularly strong for preschoolers, as described in the article in this
volume by Heather Kirkorian, Ellen Wartella,
and Daniel Anderson.
It does not seem that time spent with media
greatly displaces time spent reading or doing
homework, largely because American youth
spend so little time doing either.15 When TV
first became available, TV viewing replaced
“functionally similar” activities, such as listening to the radio, reading comic books, and
going to a movie.16
Studies have not consistently found that time
spent watching television, in general, reduces
adolescents’ time spent in school-related
activities. Most cross-sectional correlational
studies, for instance, have not found a significant link between television viewing and less
reading.17 A few studies of the influence of TV
on young children, however, suggest that TV
viewing may hinder the acquisition of reading skills over time.18 In a recent longitudinal
study in Germany, Marco Ennemoser and
Wolfgang Schneider found negative associations between total TV viewed by children at
age six and reading achievement at age nine,
even when controlling for IQ, socioeconomic
status, and prior reading ability.19 Importantly,
the negative association was between achievement and entertainment viewing; educational
TV viewing was generally linked positively
with reading achievement. This finding is consistent with other research that suggests that
TV’s effects on reading are largely dependent
on the content viewed.20 For instance, Anderson and his colleagues found that educational
TV viewing at age five positively predicted
book reading in adolescence in a prospective
longitudinal cohort.21
Electronic Media and Language
and Symbol Systems
Some researchers have evaluated whether
learning from television, which engages both
VOL. 18 / NO. 1 / S PR ING 2008
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Marie Evans Schmidt and Elizabeth A. Vandewater
the auditory and the visual systems, is more
or less efficient than learning through either
symbol system alone. Several studies have
compared viewer comprehension of a combined audiovisual presentation with comprehension of either an audio or visual version
alone. Most reveal an advantage for the
audiovisual presentation; subjects recall more
of what they hear and see together than what
they see or hear only.22
One study found benefits
of video gaming for visual
attention, including greater
attentional capacity, quicker
attention deployment, and
faster processing.
Electronic Media, Attention,
and Visual Spatial Skills
According to Gavriel Salomon, different
media forms recruit, and develop, different
cognitive processes. His seminal book, Interaction of Media, Cognition, and Learning,
provides evidence for this premise. He demonstrates that repeated exposure to cinematic
codes presented on film, such as the zoom
technique, leads children to internalize these
codes. In one experiment, eighth graders who
watched a film that used repeated zooms
achieved higher scores on a search task that
required them to find details in a complex
display. In fact, for eighth graders who
earned low scores on a pre-test of the search
task, viewing the film improved scores more
than practicing the search task itself. Similarly,
students who watched a film depicting the
unfolding of a three-dimensional object
significantly improved their scores on a test
requiring identification of unfolded objects. 23
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T H E F U T UR E OF C HI LDRE N
Salomon’s research also provides evidence
that educational programs can enhance
particular cognitive abilities. When Sesame
Street was first introduced to Israel, schoolaged children who watched the program
improved on tests of attention and inference
making. In a later experiment, second graders
who watched the program for eight days in
school performed better on measures of
select cognitive skills than a control group
who watched adventure or nature films.24
Daniel Anderson and Patricia Collins note,
however, in a review of the effects of TV
on cognitive development, that the benefits
revealed by Salomon’s studies are short-term,
small, and specific to educational programs
or instructional films.25 Further, because
Salomon’s work suggests that internalization
requires repeat, heavy exposure to particular
media content, it is unclear to what extent
cognitive skills would be enhanced in typical
TV viewing environments.
Few studies have examined the links between
television and spatial skills, and those that
have are inconclusive.26 Analysts have conducted far more research on video games.
These studies suggest that video games may
positively affect a variety of visual spatial
skills. Adult video game players, for example,
have better hand-eye coordination than nonplayers.27 In one experimental study, spending fifteen minutes playing an Atari video
game improved adults’ performance (fifty
milliseconds relative to controls) on a simple
reaction time test.28 Children’s previous video
game experience has also been associated
with shorter reaction times on color and
shape discrimination and stimulus anticipation tasks.29
Several studies suggest that video game
play may enhance spatial reasoning skills in
Media and Attention, Cognition, and School Achievement
youth.30 In one experiment, Patricia McClurg
and Christine Chaille found that playing
select computer games for five minutes, twice
a week, for six weeks improved fifth, seventh,
and ninth graders’ performance on a paper
and pencil mental-rotation task in which students view a three-dimensional target shape
in one orientation and must indicate whether
another shape is different or the same in a
different orientation. In fact, fifth graders
who had received the video game training
scored higher than ninth graders who had not
played the video games.31
Richard De Lisi and Jennifer Wolford found
positive effects on spatial skills of playing the
video game Tetris, which requires mental
rotation. After eleven thirty-minute sessions
of playing Tetris, third graders showed
improved scores on a paper-and-pencil test of
mental-rotation skills. Before the video game
training, children in the control group, who
played a game that required no mental rotation, and children in the experimental group
earned similar scores; after training, the
students who had played Tetris scored significantly higher than the control group. Only
the experimental group received significantly
higher scores on the test after training.32
A series of experiments by Shawn Green
and Daphne Bevelier reveal that video game
play yields improvements in several aspects
of visual attention. Experienced adult gamers are able to track more items in an array
of dynamic distractor items, to locate more
quickly a briefly appearing target, and to
process more efficiently an ongoing stream of
information.33
In a recent analysis, Matthew Dye and
Bevelier examined the relative visual attention skills of child gamers and non-gamers.
Similar to the adult studies, the study found
benefits of gaming for visual attention,
including greater attentional capacity, quicker
attention deployment, and faster processing.34
Not all video game training studies, however,
have found improved spatial skills among
players.35 In one study, adults trained on Tetris
did not increase their mental-rotation scores
more than controls, although advanced Tetris
players did have superior mental-rotation
skills, relative to Tetris novices. This finding,
however, could be attributable to what social
scientists call selection: individuals with
superior mental rotation skills are more likely
to play games like Tetris. A video game training experiment with seventh graders did not
reveal improvements in spatial visualization,
even though the same experiment improved
spatial visualization skills in adults.36
Kaveri Subrahmanyan and Patricia Greenfield point out that the content of the game
influences whether, and what, visual spatial
skills are learned. In an experiment, fifth
graders who played Marble Madness, a game
that requires a player to guide a marble
through a grid, increased their dynamic spatial skills significantly, as tested on a computer
test battery; students who played a fill-in-theblank word game showed no improvement
on spatial skills. Children whose spatial skills
were the lowest on a pre-test improved the
most with video game practice.37
Electronic Media and
Problem-Solving Skills
Video game play may also enhance problemsolving skills.38 Postulating that video games
provide informal training in inductive
discovery, Greenfield and several colleagues
administered questionnaires to college undergraduates during various stages of Evolution
play. They documented a process of inductive
discovery: as play went on, players induced
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Marie Evans Schmidt and Elizabeth A. Vandewater
the rules and strategies inherent to the game.
A demonstration and teaching session, as
provided for some study participants in a
comparison group, had no effect on the final
skill levels for either novices or skilled
players.39
One growing popular concern
is whether electronic media
use is associated with
attention deficit hyperactivity
disorder (ADHD).
The long-term positive benefits of electronic
media depend, in large part, on whether
children can learn abstract knowledge or
problem-solving skills and transfer them to
new situations. Although children, at various
ages, can learn specific facts from television,
little research has specifically investigated
whether they can transfer that learning, and,
if so, how. Evaluations of educational television shows have provided mixed evidence for
transfer.40 For instance, an evaluation of CRO,
a program for six- to eleven-year-olds that
focuses on science and technology, found that
children understood the educational content
of an episode about airplanes and flight. They
could not, however, transfer underlying
principles learned from the program (for
example, about the dynamics of flight) to
problems with a different set of stimuli (for
example, a new set of model airplanes).41
Another study, of Sesame Street, found that
five- and six-year-old children could not
transfer a problem-solving strategy to a new
problem, even though they could replicate the
strategy with a problem similar to the one
they saw on the show.42 Slightly more promising findings have come from studies of the
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T H E F U T UR E OF C HI LDRE N
math series Square One TV. In one study,
some of the children transferred problemsolving skills learned from the program to new
problems, though transfer performance was
worse than performance on recall and comprehension measures.43 In another study,
viewing Square One TV in schools for six
weeks led to improved performance for fifth
graders on math problems not shown on TV.44
Although evaluations of specific programs
have failed to provide consistent evidence
of transfer of learning, it is yet plausible that
transfer occurs.45 For example, studies have
demonstrated transfer effects, such as those
found for Square One TV, with preschoolers
and school-age children.46 Further, Anderson
and several colleagues have demonstrated
long-term positive effects of viewing Sesame
Street; children who watched the program at
age five received higher grades in the math,
English, and science courses they later took
in college.47 Such findings strongly suggest
that some form of transfer of learning occurs;
the specific mechanisms that underlie such
effects, however, have yet to be described.
Shalom Fisch, in his capacity model, contends that transfer from television is possible,
as long as four conditions are met: the child
must understand the content of the program,
must create an abstract mental representation of that content (separate from its specific
context on TV), must remember the content
and see its relation to the new problem, and
must apply the remembered content to the
new problem. A breakdown in any of these
areas can impede transfer of learning. The
likelihood of transfer also depends on the age
of the viewer (older viewers transfer more
effectively) and the content of the specific
program. Transfer is more effective if the educational content is embedded in the narrative.
But if it is embedded too deeply, the child
Media and Attention, Cognition, and School Achievement
may have difficulty generating an abstract
representation of the content.48 Fisch therefore recommends program repetition, as well
as repetition of the same content in multiple
contexts, to increase the likelihood of transfer
of learning. Although Fisch’s theory is based
on established research and theory about
transfer of learning, it is relatively new and
still largely untested with respect to television.
As with television, very little research has
empirically tested whether video games
facilitate transfer of learning. In one experiment, Hitendra Pillay found that playing
computer games improved fourteen- to
sixteen-year-old students’ performance on
computer-based educational tasks.49 Students
in the experimental groups played a puzzle or
adventure computer game and were subsequently tested on an interactive multimedia
problem-solving program. Students who
played the adventure game performed better
on the problem-solving task. Pillay views
these findings as consistent with the research
on transfer; the adventure game was more
similar to the problem-solving task and therefore facilitated transfer of learning. Playing
entertainment games, Pillay also suggests,
may develop users’ structural knowledge,
allowing them to learn effectively from other
computer applications.
Electronic Media and Attention
One growing popular concern is whether
electronic media use is associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Children warrant diagnosis of ADHD if they
exhibit inattention, hyperactivity, or impulsivity that significantly impairs social or academic functioning for at least six months.50
According to parents, television viewing
captures the attention of children with
ADHD for extended periods of time and is
one of the few activities capable of doing so.51
Given the widespread speculation about links
between electronic media use and ADHD, it
is surprising how little researchers know about
the subject.52 Correlational work suggests
a possible link, albeit a small one; the work
does not answer the question of whether
children with ADHD simply use electronic
media differently than children without
ADHD. The evidence for a link between
ADHD and electronic media use is thus, at
this stage, inconsistent.
To date, only a few studies have compared
media use in children with a confirmed clinical diagnosis of ADHD and media use in
children without ADHD. Richard Milich and
Elizabeth Lorch found no significant differences in time spent watching television or in
types of TV content viewed among boys, aged
seven to twelve, with and without ADHD.53
More recently, Ignacio David AcevadoPolakovich and several colleagues, in a crosssectional study, found greater TV viewing
among school-aged children with a diagnosis
of ADHD. But the link disappeared when
the authors specifically controlled for the
mother’s education level (lower in children
with ADHD) and whether the child had a TV
in his or her bedroom. School-aged children
with ADHD were two times more likely to
have a TV in their bedroom; thus, they potentially had greater access to TV, which could
account for their heavier TV use. However,
children with ADHD who did not have television sets in their bedrooms did watch more
TV than children without ADHD who had no
television in their bedrooms. Children with
ADHD also were significantly more involved
with TV, as measured by parental report.54
Acevado-Polakovich and colleagues conclude
that any link that may exist between television
viewing and ADHD is complex. School-aged
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Marie Evans Schmidt and Elizabeth A. Vandewater
children with ADHD may be more involved
with TV because it may serve as a substitute
for social interaction, and children with
ADHD are more likely to experience peer
rejection. Further, the authors found that
children with ADHD are more likely to
watch TV with an adult, perhaps in part
Some studies rely on
computer game tasks for
laboratory tests of children
with ADHD, because they
are thought to promote the
best possible test performance
in this population.
because, by parental report, TV viewing is a
comparatively low-conflict, low-stress activity
for them to do with their children. All these
factors could account for increased TV viewing among children with ADHD.55
Analysts have also conducted research on
attention problems, as distinct from clinical
disorders. Jeffrey Johnson and several colleagues, in a prospective longitudinal study,
found a weak to moderate association (odds
ratio = 1.44) between television viewing at
age fourteen and attention problems (as
assessed by the Diagnostic Interview Schedule for Children) at age sixteen. This link
remained when the authors controlled for
relevant child and family variables, including
parent income and education, presence of
childhood neglect, and learning or attention
difficulties at baseline. Youth who watched
three or more hours of television a day were
at greatest risk for subsequent attention
problems. Notably, the authors did not find
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T H E F U T UR E OF C HI LDRE N
evidence that attention problems at age fourteen predicted subsequent television viewing
at sixteen years of age.56
A few cross-sectional studies have also examined the link between attention problems and
television viewing. One study found that TV
viewing and attention problems, as assessed
by the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL),
were related (r = .20) among second- and
third-grade children in Turkey. Children who
watched TV less than two hours a day scored
lower on the attention problems subscale of
the CBCL than children who watched TV
two or more hours a day.57
Another study found a positive link between
fourth- and fifth-grade students’ television
viewing and teacher ratings of attention
problems and impulsivity, as assessed by the
Attention and Hyperactivity subscales of the
ADD-H Comprehensive Teachers Rating
Scale (r = -.4). The study, however, found no
link between TV viewing and parent ratings
of attention problems or impulsivity, a laboratory measure of attention (the Stroop Color
and Word Test), or classroom observation.
Further, the type of program viewed was not
differentially linked with attention outcomes.
Television viewing predicted less classroom
attention during independent work periods.58
Very few studies have examined links
between electronic media other than TV and
attention. One cross-sectional study surveyed
seventy-two adolescents (time use) and their
parents to assess ADHD, as indicated by the
Conner’s Parent Rating Scale (CPRS), and
found a significant association between playing video games for more than one hour each
day and an increase in scores on the inattention and ADHD portions of the CPRS.
There was no association between time spent
watching television or using the Internet
Media and Attention, Cognition, and School Achievement
and ADHD symptoms. Because the authors
did not test for the direction of the link, it is
plausible that adolescents with ADHD simply
spend more time playing video games.59
Interestingly, video games may provide
optimal learning conditions for children
with ADHD. Some studies rely on computer
game tasks for laboratory tests of children
with ADHD, because they are thought to
promote the best possible test performance
in this population.60 Why is this so? In particular, video games offer immediate feedback,
which is highly motivating for children with
ADHD. External rewards are almost continuous during game play, but especially just
before and contingent to any of the child’s
responses to the game.61 Also, video games
increase activation and arousal, which may
improve task performance. Matthias Koepp
and several colleagues have demonstrated
that video games effectively stimulate the
neural reward system by causing the brain to
release dopamine, which is associated with
learning and positive reinforcement.62
Electronic Media and
Engagement of Attention
Researchers have, in fact, explored what
design features allow electronic media to hold
attention for long periods of time. They use
the term engagement to reflect the degree of
intensity associated with an episode of attention.63 Engagement is also used to denote a
phase of attention. Each episode of attention is made up of three phases—initiation,
engagement, and termination.64 Holly Ruff
and Mary Rothbart explain that engagement,
the intermediate phase, follows either an
orienting reaction or a voluntary intention to
attend to a stimulus or event.65
During the initiation phase, attention is
“captured” by salient or novel events in the
environment through the three- to five-second orienting response.66 Engagement results
if “pre-attentive” processes determine some
value in the information detected by the
orienting response, and it allows the child to
stay focused on an event.67
Engagement during television viewing is
typically variable. Dan Anderson and several
colleagues first proposed the phenomenon of
attentional inertia based on observations of
children watching television. They found that
a child who looks at television is more likely to
continue looking if he has been looking for
some time. Conditional survival probability
plots revealed that the probability of a child
looking away peaks at about one second then
progressively declines with each successive
three-second period that he continues looking,
until it levels off at about fifteen seconds.68
When viewers look at television, most look
away after a short time (less than three to five
seconds), a finding that applies equally to
infants as young as six months, preschoolers,
and adults.69 Thus, at all ages, when the
viewer first looks at a television program, the
probability that she will look away is high; as
she continues to look, however, the probability of looking away dramatically declines.
Inertial engagement, which is only one form
of engagement, is thought to be the “cognitive
glue” that holds sustained attention together
across breaks in TV content, such as cuts,
edits, or commercials, external distractions,
or when TV content becomes temporarily
incomprehensible.
Dan Anderson and Elizabeth Lorch found
that inertial engagement kept preschoolers
looking at Sesame Street when content
changed. A child who had been looking at
Sesame Street for a sustained period before
that change was more likely to continue
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Marie Evans Schmidt and Elizabeth A. Vandewater
looking afterward.70 The same phenomenon
was found for adults viewing prime-time
television and commercials.71 Anderson and
Lorch hypothesized that initially a person
watching television continues viewing based
on whether the content is understandable;
however, once the viewer has been looking for
about fifteen seconds, the attention becomes
generalized to the medium of television,
which makes the viewer resistant to distraction.72 Anderson and several colleagues found
that three- and five-year-old children were
less likely to turn toward a distractor (a slide
preceded by a beep off to the side of the TV
screen) if they had been looking at the television for fifteen seconds or longer.73
Engagement with television varies according
to whether the content is comprehensible.
It also appears to vary as a function of the
relevance of particular content to the overall
narrative of the television program. Fiveto eight-year-old children were slower to
respond to a secondary task (button pressing
in response to a tone) during viewing of content deemed central rather than incidental to
the narrative.74
Elizabeth Lorch and Victoria Castle also
found that five-year-olds responded more
slowly to a secondary task during normal
segments than during language-distorted
segments of Sesame Street, suggesting that
engagement is deeper when content is understandable. When content is difficult to understand, “breakdowns” in attention may free up
capacity for the secondary task.75
Researchers have used measures that assess
engagement to examine how the formal
features of television—cuts, sudden camera
changes, movement, sound effects—affect
attention to television viewing.76 In a study of
adults’ television viewing, Byron Reeves and
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T H E F U T UR E OF C HI LDRE N
several colleagues found electroencephalogram (EEG) decreases in alpha waves (usually
associated with increased cognitive activity)
that were time-locked to the presence of
formal features, such as scene changes.77 A
team of researchers using the secondary task
reaction time (STRT) procedure found slower
reaction times during commercials that were
simple overall (globally simple messages).
Local complexity (presence of formal features), however, also produced slower reaction
times.78 Thus, it appears that formal features
temporarily “engage” attention, although
whether the engagement is sustained is likely
a function of comprehensibility.
Video games typically provide interesting
sensory stimuli, which recruit attention.
However, attention is likely sustained by
other features of games, one of which is
fantasy.79 When playing computer games, the
user enters an imaginary world, where he or
she is free to participate in a variety of situations, without real-world consequences.80
Fantasy may enhance learning by stimulating
children’s interest.81 It also may focus attention and increase engagement.82 Games in
which the fantasy is directly tied to the
content may be more motivating.83
Games also may increase motivation by providing clearly defined goals.84 Clear, specific
goals are related to improved performance.85
When a learner sets clear goals, he can
evaluate whether he has met them. When
his performance does not attain his goal, the
learner is motivated to close the gap between
goal and performance, thus leading to greater
effort.86 Fran Blumberg asked second and fifth
graders about the game features that captured
their attention and about the strategies they
used after playing a video game for ten minutes. As expected, older children and more
frequent players performed better on the
Media and Attention, Cognition, and School Achievement
game. Second graders were more likely to talk
about their feelings about the game, whereas
fifth graders emphasized their specific goals
and standards for play. Concern for standards
was associated positively with performance,
whereas concern for feelings was associated
negatively with game performance.87
In sum, despite the increasing
use of video games in education, analysts know little
about what exactly children
learn from gaming, primarily
because of a lack of rigorous
research on learning outcomes.
Challenge is another feature of engaging
video games. The optimal game provides a
set goal structure but leaves players uncertain about whether they can achieve it. Video
games also offer players the opportunity to
control elements of the experience. Education research that is not specific to video
games suggests that giving learners control
increases motivation and learning.88
Some research has also examined whether
video games can promote “flow,” which
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi characterizes as
a state in which a person loses herself in a
deeply pleasurable activity.89 Richard Bowman, in an analysis of Pac-Man­play, depicts
video games as powerful because they can
induce a flow experience in players.90 Games
that foster flow experiences share several
characteristics. Players’ skills typically fit
the difficulty level of the game.91 The game
should have levels of increasing difficulty,
so it can keep pace with players’ growing
skill levels. In addition to well-defined goals,
games should provide immediate, relevant
feedback.92 In a study of children’s flow
experiences while playing video games, Yavuz
Inal and Kursat Calgitay administered a “flow
scale” to children aged seven to nine. According to children’s self report, games with
varying levels of difficulty promoted the flow
experience; challenge, in fact, was the greatest contributor to flow state.93
Games can, ideally, provide an inquiry-based
learning experience, whereby learners
approach new material through trial and
error, in a safe space. Games offer learners
the opportunity to try again and again, receiving feedback, all while experimenting with
different strategies. Newer multi-user games
allow learners to work collaboratively or as a
team and thus to also practice social skills.
At present, there is scant evidence, however,
to establish definitively the effectiveness of
games in educating, largely because few
empirical studies have been conducted. In
2005, Harold O’Neil, Richard Wainess, and
Eva Baker conducted a thorough review of
studies of the educational potential of games.
Of the thousands of articles published
between 1990 and 2005, only nineteen contained qualitative or quantitative data. Overall, the authors do not find evidence that
games have particular benefits for learning,
and they speculate that games alone (without
instructional support) are not sufficient as
learning tools. They further contend that
games that fail to teach fail because they lack
effective instructional design.94
In sum, despite the increasing use of video
games in education, analysts know little about
what exactly children learn from gaming, primarily because of a lack of rigorous research
on learning outcomes.95
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Marie Evans Schmidt and Elizabeth A. Vandewater
Gavriel Salomon and Tamar Almog further
contend that technology should ultimately
serve pedagogy, insofar as it is a tool for facilitating learning. The technology is simply the
means to enact the pedagogy. The pedagogical philosophy embedded in the technology
will determine what is learned. Psychology
and educational technology research should
thus inform software design to maximize
learning outcomes.96
Learning from Hypertext
Hypertexts—dynamic texts, such as a website
or multimedia software program, presented
on a computer in a nonlinear fashion—offer a
number of advantageous possibilities for
learning. Hypertexts are interactive, allowing
users to take in information at their own pace
in the way they are most likely to derive
meaning from it.97 Hypertexts are openended; they allow readers to choose the
information they want to retrieve and the
order in which they want to retrieve it.98 In
fact, readers build their own text as they
navigate through the information presented.99
Typically, hypertexts recruit and sustain high
levels of attention.100
With hypertexts, readers must create the
structure of the text based on their own
knowledge, whereas in traditional texts,
readers use the existing structure of the text
to make inferences that enhance comprehension.101 Hypertexts thus require additional
cognitive skills, as readers are responsible for
determining what information they need to
further increase their understanding of the
topic and how to access it.102 Research has
focused on comprehension and control of
hypertext.
Several studies have assessed learning from
hypertexts.103 In a review of all quantitative
studies of hypermedia and learning outcomes
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T H E F U T UR E OF C HI LDRE N
published between 1990 and 1996, Andrew
Dillon and Ralph Gabbard found no overall
comprehension advantages for hypermedia
(even across a variety of comprehension measures) over paper presentations.104 However,
hypermedia did offer significant advantages
for particular tasks, such as visual categorization and discrimination and searches through
large amounts of information.105
Readers’ prior knowledge of a topic likely
affects their comprehension of hypertexts.
In one study with adults, prior knowledge
improved recall from the text and also influenced how users navigated through the
reading environment.106 Readers lacking prior
knowledge may have difficulty navigating the
hypertext, as they may find it hard to find the
information they need.
Interest in content has been associated with
easier, more efficient navigation through the
text, whereas interest in dynamic text features, such as sound effects and video, has
been associated with less comprehension.107
Increased control may offer advantages for
some hypertext users. However, the benefits
of increased control may vary with the ability
of the user. Complexity may, in fact, hinder
performance in students by confusing
them.108 Some studies report a user preference for hypertexts offering control, even
though learning may not be improved.109
Almost all studies of hypertext navigation
have focused on adults. Kimberly Lawless
and several colleagues, however, studied
children’s navigational strategies through
hypertext. Fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade
children completed a domain knowledge
pre-assessment, individual and situational
interest pre-surveys, and post-tests of recall.
In addition, the computer recorded the path
Media and Attention, Cognition, and School Achievement
navigated by each user. Based on the data,
the study identified distinct navigational
profiles, similar to those for adults. Most
students, the “knowledge seekers,” focused
on the information portions of the hypertext.
A smaller group of students, the “feature
seekers,” spent most of their time exploring
features, such as animation and movies. A
third group of students, “apathetic hypertext users,” spent little overall time with the
hypertext. The most knowledgeable students
were more likely to be the apathetic users;
the least knowledgeable, the feature seekers. The knowledge seekers fell in between.
The authors concluded that prior knowledge
affects navigational strategy, in that it may
enhance interest in content.110
Research on learning from hypertext is limited, especially with regard to children. Dillon
and Gabbard point out that the research suffers from a host of methodological flaws, limiting the conclusions that can be drawn. They
argue for greater focus on the design variables
responsible for different learning outcomes,
as well as how those design variables interact
with individual differences in users.111
Media and the Family
More than half (53 percent) of eight- to
eighteen-year-olds have reported that their
parents set no rules about watching TV.
Among those who reported having rules,
only 20 percent indicated that those rules are
enforced “most of the time.”112 More specifically, among seventh to twelfth graders, only
13–14 percent have parental rules limiting
how much television they watch each day;
only 17 percent have rules limiting the time
they spend playing video games each day.
Although parents are slightly more likely to
set rules regarding computer use, only 23
percent of seventh to twelfth graders have
parental rules limiting the time they spend
or the types of activities they pursue on the
computer. The most common rule (one that
applies to 36 percent of these adolescents) is
that they cannot watch TV until they finish
their homework or chores.113
Research on parental monitoring of media use
has had mixed findings. The share of parents
who actively supervise their children’s media
use varies from study to study.114 However,
research over the past forty years suggests that
less than half of parents enforced TV viewing
limits or regularly discussed TV content with
their children, whatever their ages.115
Children whose parents set television viewing
rules watch forty fewer minutes of television
each day than children whose parents set no
rules.116 Another effective form of parental
involvement is active mediation. When parents watch TV with their children and talk
about the content viewed, children demonstrate improved comprehension of content
and TV production techniques.117
Various technologies have been developed to
help parents monitor their children’s electronic media use. Parents can, for instance,
control children’s exposure to media content
by selecting videotapes for their children.
However, research suggests that children
typically watch videos that are similar to
what they watch on broadcast television.118
Video recorders, for the most part, do not
appear to have substantially changed how
families monitor television. Research has
not yet been conducted on the Digital Video
Recorder (DVR), which also has the potential to influence children’s TV viewing. The
V-chip, which was designed to enhance
parental control, has not been used by most
parents.119 Parents have, however, been more
proactive about limiting access to Internet
content than limiting access to TV. Amanda
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Marie Evans Schmidt and Elizabeth A. Vandewater
Lenhart reports that more than half of households with teenagers use Internet filtering
software.120
Few studies have examined parental regulation of video game play. Peter Nikken and
Jeroen Jansz report that parents use the same
forms of mediation, including restrictive,
active, and coviewing, for computer gaming
as for television viewing. With video game
play, however, parents are most likely to use
restrictive mediation, or rules; they are least
likely to use coviewing, the strategy that they
use most often for television viewing.121
Media in Schools
Increasingly, electronic media, particularly
the interactive technologies afforded by computers, have been adopted in school settings
in America. Channel One, an in-school news
program first introduced in 1990, rapidly
became part of the school curriculum. Its
use for delivery of non-educational messages
such as televised food advertising has been
noted and roundly criticized.122 According to
the National Center for Education Statistics,
35 percent of public schools in the United
States had access to the Internet in 1994;
nine years later, that figure had risen to 100
percent. The share of instructional rooms in
public schools connected to the Internet has
also increased dramatically. In 1994, only 3
percent of instructional rooms had computers
with Internet access; by 2005, that figure had
soared to 94 percent.123
Interestingly, though both educators and
parents tend to view television with suspicion
and have doubts about its use as an educational tool, they view computers almost uniformly (and unquestioningly) as conferring
educational benefits on children and youth.
The reasons are twofold. First, the interactive nature of computers, whereby children
76
T H E F U T UR E OF C HI LDRE N
can control both the content and the speed of
information presented, is widely assumed to
enhance learning. Second, part of the appeal
of computers is the widespread recognition
that they are essential to future educational
or business endeavors. Thus, familiarity and
facility with computer technologies is viewed
as a crucial skill for successful entry into the
adult world. Though both of these views
make intuitive sense, little empirical research
supports either.
Educators, in particular, have been quick to
jump on the “interactive technology” bandwagon. Scores of programs use computer
technologies to enhance or aid learning in
basic reading skills, math, and science. Few
of these programs, however, have been tested
for efficacy against more traditional, teacherbased strategies. It has simply been assumed
that interactivity enhances learning; little
solid empirical research based on randomized
controlled designs has addressed the subject.
In a recent review of research, the Institute
of Education Sciences What Works Clearing
House found that using interactive technologies advances learning no more than traditional teaching techniques.124 What matters
are the ways in which teachers choose to use,
present, and teach with the technology—
choices that are in large part dictated by
their own comfort and familiarity with the
technologies. This finding, of course, makes
perfect sense. It suggests that children’s use
of technology (and its possible educational
advantages) is only as good as the instruction they receive in how to use it. Though in
some ways the insight may seem obvious, it
is important to emphasize it because of the
widespread assumption that the technology alone, regardless of how it is used, will
enhance learning.
Media and Attention, Cognition, and School Achievement
Conclusions
Over the past half-century, the advent of each
new electronic medium or technology has
been both celebrated and viewed with alarm,
often simultaneously. Television, cable television, video games, computers, the Internet,
cell phones, and iPods have each been
regarded with dismay and sometimes downright panic by adults concerned with learning
and education. It might be worth noting that
the growing popularity of the novel as a new
writing form in the mid-nineteenth century
was viewed with similar alarm. The general
notion then was that novels would ruin young
minds. Today, however, novels are widely
respected, are the subject of serious study by
young people, and are believed to foster
imagination, creativity, and independent
thought. More often than not, both dismay
about the problems and excitement about the
opportunities presented by electronic media
and technology focus on characteristics of the
medium itself, such as visual displays, interactivity, and the like. The assumption is that
time spent with media or technology, regardless of content or quality, is central to the way
they shape youthful learning and academic
skills. As Marshall McLuhan famously said,
“The medium is the message.”
But the influence of electronic media and
technology on youthful learning and cognitive
development cannot be so neatly summarized. It turns out that content matters.
High-quality educational television programs
seem to have positive effects for children’s
learning, academic skills, and academic
engagement. The significance of content
probably explains why examinations of the
links between total amount of viewing and
achievement are not particularly useful (and
indeed have resulted in very few links being
demonstrated). The centrality of content has
even begun to emerge in examinations of
television and attention problems. In a 2007
study, Frederick Zimmerman and Dimitri
Christakis report finding links between high
doses of entertainment television before the
age of three and attention problems five years
later. Educational TV viewing, in contrast,
was not associated with subsequent attention
problems.125 Fundamentally, the implication
is quite straightforward: not surprisingly,
children learn the things we teach them.
This simple point, however, keeps getting lost
amidst the furor over electronic media and
children’s learning. The empirical evidence
suggests that electronic media are no different from any other teaching tool—good for
some things, bad for others. The work ahead
is to discover the nuances of this truth—in
essence, what is beneficial, for whom it is
beneficial, and when it is beneficial.
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Marie Evans Schmidt and Elizabeth A. Vandewater
Endnotes
1. E. A. Vandewater and S. J. Lee, “Measuring Children’s Media Use in the Digital Age: Issues and Challenges,”
American Behavioral Scientist (forthcoming).
2. M. E. Schmidt and D. R. Anderson, “The Impact of Television on Cognitive Development and Educational
Achievement,” in Children and Television: Fifty Years of Research, edited by N. Pecora, J. P. Murray, and
E. Wartella (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2006), pp. 65–84.
3. J. M. Healy, Endangered Minds: Why Our Children Don’t Think (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990);
J. L. Singer, “The Power and Limitations of Television: A Cognitive-Affective Analysis,” in The Entertainment Function of Television, edited by P. Tannenbaum (Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates,
1980), pp. 353–96; M. Winn, The Plug-in Drug: Television, Children, and the Family (New York: Viking,
1977).
4. M. Winn, The Plug-in Drug: Television, Computers, and Family Life (New York: Penguin Books, 2002);
J. M. Healy, Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds—and What We Can Do
about It (New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 1998).
5. P. A. Williams and others, “The Impact of Leisure Time Television on School Learning: A Research
Synthesis,” American Educational Research Journal 19 (1982): 19–50.
6. Ibid.
7. M. Fetler, “Television Viewing and School Achievement,” Journal of Communication 35 (1984): 104–18;
T. Z. Keith and others, “Parental Involvement, Homework, and TV Time: Direct and Indirect Effects on
High School Achievement,” Journal of Educational Psychology 78 (1986): 373–80; J. W. Potter, “Does
Television Viewing Hinder Academic Achievement among Adolescents?” Human Communication
Research 14 (1987): 27–46.
8. M. Razel, “The Complex Model of Television Viewing and Educational Achievement,” Journal of Educational Research 94, no 6 (2001): 371–79.
9. R. Hornik, “Out-of-School Television and Schooling. Hypotheses and Methods,” Review of Educational
Research 51 (1981): 193–214; S. L. Gortmaker and others, “The Impact of Television on Mental Aptitude
and Achievement: A Longitudinal Study,” Public Opinion Quarterly 54 (1990): 594–604.
10. Potter, “Does Television Viewing Hinder Academic Achievement” (see note 7); M. Morgan and L. Gross,
“Television and Educational Achievement and Aspiration,” in Television and Behavior: Ten Years of Scientific Progress and Implications for the Eighties, vol. 2: Technical Reports, edited by D. Pearl, L. Bouthilet,
and J. Lazar (Washington, D.C.: Department of Health and Human Services, 1982), pp. 78–90.
11. Fetler, “Television Viewing and School Achievement” (see note 7); Keith and others, “Parental Involvement” (see note 7); W. Schramm and others, Television in the Lives of Our Children (Palo Alto, Calif:
Stanford University Press, 1961); Potter, “Does Television Viewing Hinder Academic Achievement among
Adolescents?” (see note 7).
12. California State Department of Education, California Assessment Program (Sacramento, Calif., 1981);
California State Department of Education, California Assessment Program (Sacramento, Calif., 1982).
13. G. A. Comstock and H. J. Paik, Television and the American Child (Orlando: Academic, 1991).
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Media and Attention, Cognition, and School Achievement
14. Schmidt and Anderson, “The Impact of Television on Cognitive Development” (see note 2); D. R.
Anderson and others, “Early Childhood Television Viewing and Adolescent Behavior,” Monographs of
the Society for Research in Child Development (2001), pp. 1–147; A. C. Huston and J. C. Wright, “Mass
Media and Children’s Development,” in Handbook of Child Psychology, edited by I. E. Sigel and K. A.
Renninger (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997), pp. 999–1058; D. S. Bickham, J. C. Wright, and A.
Huston, “Attention, Comprehension, and the Educational Influences of Television,” in Handbook of
Children and the Media, edited by D. G. Singer and J. L. Singer (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2001), pp. 47–72.
15. Vandewater and Lee, “Measuring Children’s Media Use in the Digital Age” (see note 1); S. B. Neuman,
Literacy in the Television Age: The Myth of the TV Effect (Norwood, N.J.: Ablex, 1995); J. W. J. Beentjes
and T.H.A. van der Voort, “Television’s Impact on Children’s Reading Skills: A Review of Research,”
Reading Research Quarterly 23 (1988): 389–413.
16. H. T. Himmelweit, A. N. Oppenheim, and P. Vince, Television and the Child (London: Oxford, 1958);
Schramm and others, Television in the Lives of Our Children (see note 11).
17. Beentjes and van der Voort, “Television’s Impact on Children’s Reading Skills” (see note 15).
18. C. Koolstra and T. Van der Voort, “Longitudinal Effects of Television on Children’s Leisure Time Reading:
A Test of Three Explanatory Models,” Human Communication Research 23 (1996): 4–35; R. S. Corteen
and T. M. Williams, “Television and Reading Skills,” in The Impact of Television: A Natural Experiment in
Three Communities, edited by T. M. Williams (Orlando, Fla.: Academic Press, 1986), pp. 39–85.
19. M. Ennemoser and W. Schneider, “Relations of Television Viewing and Reading: Findings from a 4-Year
Longitudinal Study,” Journal of Educational Psychology 99 (2007): 349–68.
20. K. E. Rosengren and S. Windahl, Media Matter: TV Use in Childhood and Adolescence (Norwood, N.J.:
Ablex, 1989); A. C. Huston and others, “How Young Children Spend Their Time: Television and Other
Activities,” Developmental Psychology 35 (1999): 912–25.
21. Anderson and others, “Early Childhood Television Viewing” (see note 14).
22. R. B. Kozma, “Learning with Media,” Review of Educational Research 61 (1991): 179–211.
23. G. Salomon, Interaction of Media, Cognition, and Learning (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1979).
24. Ibid.
25. D. R. Anderson and P. A. Collins, The Influence on Children’s Education: The Effects of Television on
Cognitive Development (Washington: U.S. Department of Education, 1988).
26. L. Harrison and T. Williams, “Television and Cognitive Development,” in The Impact of Television: A
Natural Experiment in Three Communities, edited by T. M. Williams (New York: Academic Press, 1986),
pp. 87–142; W. Lonner and others, “The Influence of Television on Measures of Cognitive Abilities,”
Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 16 (1985): 355–80.
27. J. L. Griffith and others, “Differences in Eye-Hand Motor Coordination of Video-Game Users and
Non-Users,” Perception and Motor Skills 57 (1983): 155–58.
28. C. Orosy-Fildes and R. W. Allan, “Psychology of Computer Use: XII. Videogame Play: Human Reaction
Time to Visual Stimuli,” Perceptual and Motor Skills 69 (1989): 243–47.
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Marie Evans Schmidt and Elizabeth A. Vandewater
29. H. Yuji, “Computer Games and Information-Processing Skills,” Perceptual and Motor Skills 83 (1996):
643–47; J. S. Kuhlman and P. A. Beitel, “Videogame Experience: A Possible Explanation for Differences
in Anticipation of Coincidence,” Perceptual and Motor Skills 72 (1991): 483–88.
30. L. B. Chatters, “An Assessment of the Effects of Video Game Practice on the Visual Motor Perceptual
Skills of Sixth-Grade Children” (University of Toledo, 1984); G. G. Miller and D. E. Kapel, “Can NonVerbal, Puzzle Type Microcomputer Software Affect Spatial Discrimination and Sequential Thinking of
Skills of 7th and 8th Graders?” Education 106 (1985): 160–67.
31. P. A. McClurg and C. Chaille, “Computer Games: Environments for Developing Spatial Cognition,”
Journal of Educational Computing Research 3 (1987): 95–111.
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Playing,” The Journal of Genetic Psychology 163 (2002): 272–82.
33. C. S. Green and D. Bavelier, “Action Video Game Modifies Visual Selective Attention,” Nature 423
(2003): 534–37.
34. M. W. G. Dye and D. Bavelier, “Playing Video Games Enhances Visual Attention in Children [Abstract],”
Journal of Vision 4 (2004): 40A.
35. D. Gagnon, “Videogame and Spatial Skills: An Explanatory Study,” Educational Communication and Technology Journal 33 (1985): 263–75; V. K. Sims and R. E. Mayer, “Domain Specificity of Spatial Expertise:
The Case of Video Game Players,” Applied Cognitive Psychology 16 (2002): 97–115.
36. M. Dorval and M. Pepin, “Effect of Playing a Video Game on a Measure of Spatial Visualization,” Perception and Motor Skills 62 (1986): 159–62.
37. K. Subrahmanyam and P. M. Greenfield, “Effect of Video Game Practice on Spatial Skills in Girls and
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38. P. M. Greenfield, Mind and Media: The Effects of Television, Video Games, and Computers (Cambridge,
Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984).
39. P. M. Greenfield and others, “Cognitive Socialization by Computer Games in Two Cultures: Inductive
Discovery or Mastery of an Iconic Code?” Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 15 (1994): 59–85.
40. S. M. Fisch and others, “Transfer of Learning in Informal Education: The Case of Television,” in Transfer
of Learning from a Modern Multidisciplinary Perspective, edited by J. Mestre (Greenwich, Conn.: Information Age Publishing, 2005), pp. 371–93.
41. S. M. Fisch and others, Poster presented at the 61st annual meeting of the Society for Research in Child
Development (Indianapolis, 1995).
42. T. V. Hodapp, “Children’s Ability to Learn Problem-Solving Strategies from Television,” The Alberta
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43. T. Peel and others, Square One Television: The Comprehension and Problem Solving Study (New York:
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44. E. R. Hall and others, “Television and Children’s Problem-Solving Behavior: A Synopsis of an Evaluation
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Media and Attention, Cognition, and School Achievement
45. Fisch and others, “Transfer of Learning” (see note 40).
46. For findings on preschoolers, see J. Bryant and others, “Effects of Two Years’ Viewing of Blue’s Clues”
(Tuscaloosa, Ala.: Institute for Communication Research, University of Alabama, 1999). For findings
on school-age children, see S. Rockman, “Evaluation of Bill Nye the Science Guy: Television Series and
Outreach” (San Francisco, 1996).
47. Anderson and others, “Early Childhood Television Viewing” (see note 14).
48. S. M. Fisch, “A Capacity Model of Children’s Comprehension of Educational Content on Television,”
Media Psychology 2 (2000): 63–91.
49. H. Pillay, “An Investigation of Cognitive Processes Engaged in by Recreational Computer Game Players:
Implications for Skills of the Future,” Journal of Research on Technology in Education 34 (2003): 336–50.
50. American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Washington:
APA, 2000).
51. J. Sprafkin and others, “Television and the Emotionally Disturbed, Learning Disabled, and Mentally
Retarded Child: A Review,” in Advances in Learning and Behavioral Disabilities, edited by K. D. Gadow
(Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press, 1984), pp. 151–213.
52. S. Begley, “Your Child’s Brain,” Newsweek, February 19 (1996): 55–62; J. M. Nash, “Fertile Minds,” Time,
February 3 (1997): 49–56.
53. R. Milich and E. P. Lorch, “Television Viewing Methodology to Understand Cognitive Processing of
ADHD Children,” in Advances in Clinical Child Psychology, edited by T. H. Ollendick and R. J. Prinz
(New York: Plenum, 1994), pp. 177–201.
54. I. D. Acevedo-Polakovich and others, “Comparing Television Use and Reading with ADHD and NonReferred Children across Two Age Groups,” Media Psychology 9 (2007): 447–72.
55. Ibid.
56. J. G. Johnson and others, “Extensive Television Viewing and the Development of Attention and Learning
Difficulties in Adolescence,” Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine 161 (2007): 480–86.
57. E. Ozmert and others, “Behavioral Correlates of Television Viewing in Primary School Children Evaluated by the Child Behavior Checklist,” Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine 156 (2002): 910–14.
58. L. E. Levine and B. M. Waite, “Television Viewing and Attentional Abilities in Fourth and Fifth Grade
Children,” Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 21 (2000): 667–79.
59. P. A. Chan and T. Rabinowitz, “A Cross-Sectional Analysis of Video Games and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder Symptoms in Adolescents,” Annals of General Psychiatry 5 (2006).
60. S. Houghton and others, “Motor Control and Sequencing of Boys with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity
Disorder during Computer Game Play,” British Journal of Educational Technology 35 (2004): 21–34.
61. Ibid.
62. M. J. Koepp and others, “Evidence for Striatal Dopamine Release during a Video Game,” Nature 393
(1998): 266–68.
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63. J. J. Burns and D. R. Anderson, “Cognition and Watching Television,” in Neuropsychology of Everyday
Life: Issues in Development and Rehabilitation, edited by D. Tupper and K. Cicerone (Boston: Kluwer,
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64. J. E. Richards and B. J. Casey, “Heart Rate Variability during Attention Phases in Young Infants,” Psychophysiology 28 (1992): 43–53.
65. H. Ruff and M. K. Rothbart, Attention in Early Development: Themes and Variations (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1996).
66. E. N. Sokolov, Perception and the Conditioned Reflex (Oxford: Pergamon, 1963).
67. Ruff and Rothbart, Attention in Early Development (see note 65).
68. D. R. Anderson and others, “Attentional Inertia Reduces Distractibility during Young Children’s Television
Viewing,” Child Development 58 (1987): 798–806.
69. J. E. Richards and T. L. Gibson, “Extended Visual Fixation in Young Infants: Look Distributions, Heart
Rate Changes, and Attention,” Child Development 68 (1997): 1041–56; J. E. Richards and K. Cronise, “Extended Visual Fixation in the Early Preschool Years: Look Duration, Heart Rate Changes, and Attentional
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70. D. R. Anderson and E. P. Lorch, “Looking at Television: Action or Reaction,” in Children’s Understanding
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Academic Press, 1983).
71. Burns and Anderson, “Cognition and Watching Television” (see note 63).
72. Anderson and Lorch, “Looking at Television: Action or Reaction” (see note 70).
73. Anderson and others, “Attentional Inertia” (see note 68).
74. J. M. Meadowcroft and B. Reeves, “Influence of Story Schema Development on Children’s Attention to
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75. E. P. Lorch and V. J. Castle, “Preschool Children’s Attention to Television: Visual Attention and Probe
Response Times,” Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 66 (1997): 111–18.
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Features,” in Children’s Understanding of TV: Research on Attention and Comprehension, edited by
J. Bryant and D. R. Anderson (New York: Academic Press, 1983), pp. 37–68.
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Alpha Variations over Time,” International Journal of Neuroscience 27 (1985): 241–55.
78. E. Thorson, B. Reeves, and J. Schleuder, “Message Complexity and Attention to Television,” Communication Research 12 (1985): 427–54.
79. T. W. Malone and M. R. Lepper, “Making Learning Fun: A Taxonomy of Intrinsic Motivations for Learning,” in Aptitude, Learning and Instruction, vol. 3: Cognitive and Affective Process Analyses, edited by
R. E. Snow and M. J. Farr (Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum, 1987), pp. 223–53.
82
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Media and Attention, Cognition, and School Achievement
80. P. Thomas and R. Macredie, “Games and the Design of Human-Computer Interfaces,” Educational
Technology 31 (1994): 134–42.
81. D. I. Cordova and M. R. Lepper, “Intrinsic Motivation and the Process of Learning: Beneficial Effects of
Contextualization, Personalization, and Choice,” Journal of Educational Psychology 88 (1996): 715–30;
L. E. Parker and M. R. Lepper, “Effects of Fantasy Contexts on Children’s Learning and Motivation:
Making Learning More Fun,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 62 (1992): 625–33.
82. J. E. Driskell and D. J. Dwyer, “Microcomputer Videogame Based Training,” Educational Technology 24
(1984): 11–15.
83. L. P. Rieber, “Seriously Considering Play: Designing Interactive Learning Environments Based on the
Blending of Microworlds, Simulations, and Games,” Educational Technology Research and Development
44 (1996): 43–58.
84. T. W. Malone, “Toward a Theory of Intrinsically Motivating Instruction,” Cognitive Science 4 (1981): 333–69.
85. E. A. Locke and G. P. Latham, A Theory of Goal Setting and Task Performance (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:
Prentice-Hall, 1990).
86. M. C. Kernan and R. G. Lord, “An Application of Control Theory to Understanding the Relationship
between Performance and Satisfaction,” Human Performance 4 (1991).
87. F. C. Blumberg, “Developmental Differences at Play: Children’s Selective Attention and Performance in
Video Games,” Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 19 (1998): 615–24.
88. D. I. Cordova and M. R. Lepper, “Intrinsic Motivation and the Process of Learning: Beneficial Effects of
Contextualization, Personalization, and Choice,” Journal of Educational Psychology 88 (1996): 715–30.
89. M. Csikszentmihalyi and R. Larson, “Intrinsic Rewards in School Crime,” in Dealing in Discipline, edited
by M. Verble (Omaha, Neb.: University of Mid-America, 1980), pp. 181–92.
90. R. Bowman, “A Pac-Man Theory of Motivation. Tactical Implications for Classroom Instruction,” Educational Technology 22 (1982): 14–17.
91. P. Sweetser and P. Wyeth, “Gameflow: A Model for Evaluating Players’ Enjoyment in Games,” ACM
Computers in Entertainment 3 (2005).
92. K. Killi, “Digital Game-Based Learning: Towards an Experiential Gaming Model,” The Internet & Higher
Education 8 (2005): 13–24.
93. Y. Inal and K. Calgitay, “Flow Experiences of Children in an Interactive Social Game Environment,”
British Journal of Educational Technology 38 (2007): 455–64.
94. H. F. O’Neil, Richard Wainess, and Eva Baker, “Classification of Learning Outcomes: Evidence from the
Computer Games Literature,” The Curriculum Journal 16 (2005): 455–74.
95. K. Squire, “Video Games in Education,” International Journal of Intelligent Simulations and Gaming 2
(2003), J. Kirriemuir and A. McFarlane, “Literature Review in Games and Learning: Report 8” (Bristol:
Nesta Futurelab, 2003).
96. G. Salomon and T. Almog, “Educational Psychology and Technology: A Matter of Reciprocal Relations,”
Teachers College Record 100 (1998): 222–41.
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Marie Evans Schmidt and Elizabeth A. Vandewater
97. E. Barrett, Text, Context, and Hypertext (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1988); D. Jonassen, “Hypertext
Principles for Text and Courseware Design,” Educational Psychologist 21 (1986): 269–92.
98. G. P. Landow, Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Theory and Technology (Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 1992).
99. G. P. Landow, Hypertext 2.0: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).
100. D. Jonassen, Hypertext/Hypermedia (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Educational Technology Publications, 1989).
101. K. A. Lawless and others, “Children’s Hypertext Navigation Strategies,” Journal of Research on Technology
in Education 34 (2003): 274–84.
102. Kozma, “Learning with Media” (see note 22).
103. M. A. Horney and L. Anderson-Inman, “Supported Text in Electronic Reading Environments,” Reading
and Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties 15 (1998): 127–68; M. J. Jacobson and R. J.
Spiro, “Hypertext Learning Environments, Cognitive Flexibility, and the Transfer of Complex Knowledge:
An Empirical Investigation,” Journal of Educational Computing Research 12 (1995): 301–33.
104. A. Dillon and R. Gabbard, “Hypermedia as an Educational Technology: A Review of the Quantitative
Research Literature on Learner Comprehension, Control, and Style,” Review of Educational Research 68
(1998).
105. J. Psotka and others, “The Use of Hypertext and Sensory-Level Supports for Visual Learning of Aircraft
Names and Shapes,” Behavior Research Methods 25 (1993): 168–72; G. Marchionini and G. Crane,
“Evaluating Hypermedia and Learning: Methods and Results from the Perseus Project,” ACM Transactions
on Information Systems 12 (1994): 5–34.
106. K. A. Lawless and J. M. Kulikowich, “Domain Knowledge, Interest, and Hypertext Navigation: A Study of
Individual Differences,” Journal of Educational Media and Hypermedia 7 (1998): 51–70.
107. A. Dillon, “Readers’ Models of Text Structure: The Case of Academic Materials,” International Journal of
Man-Machine Studies 35 (1991): 913–25; Lawless and Kulikowich, “Domain Knowledge” (see note 106).
108. J. E. Gall and M. J. Hannafin, “A Framework for Studying Hypertext,” in American Educational Research
Association (AERA) Conference (New Orleans, La., 1994).
109. W. Lowrey, “More Control, but Not Clarity in Non-Linear Web Stories,” Newspaper Research Journal 25
(2004).
110. Lawless and others, “Children’s Hypertext Navigation Strategies” (see note 101).
111. A. Dillon and R. Gabbard, “Hypermedia as an Educational Technology: A Review of the Quantitative
Research Literature on Learner Comprehension, Control, and Style,” Review of Educational Research 68
(1996).
112. D. F. Roberts and others, Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year-Olds (Menlo Park, Calif.: Kaiser
Family Foundation, 2005).
113. Ibid.
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Media and Attention, Cognition, and School Achievement
114. A. Dorr and B. E. Rabin, “Parents, Children, and Television,” in Handbook of Parenting, vol. 4: Applied
and Practical Parenting, edited by M. H. Bornstein (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1995), pp. 323–51;
J. D. Stranger, “Television in the Home 1998: The Third Annual National Survey of Parents and Children”
(Philadelphia: Annenberg Public Policy Center, 1998).
115. R. Abelman, “Parents’ Use of Content-Based TV Advisories,” Parenting: Science & Practice 1 (2001): 237–
65; R. J. Desmond and others, “Family Mediation: Parental Communication Patterns and the Influences
of Television on Children,” in Television and the American Family, edited by Jennings Bryant (Hillsdale,
N.J.: Erlbaum, 1990), pp. 293–309; R. Warren, “In Words and Deeds: Parental Involvement and Mediation of Children’s Television Viewing,” Journal of Family Communication 1 (2001): 211–31; R. Warren and
others, “Is There Enough Time on the Clock? Parental Involvement and Mediation of Children’s Television Viewing,” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 46 (2002): 87.
116. Roberts and others, Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year-Olds (see note 112).
117. Anderson and Collins, The Influence on Children’s Education (see note 25); C. R. Corder-Bolz, “Mediation:
The Role of Significant Others,” Journal of Communication 30 (1980): 106–18; R. J. Desmond and others,
“Family Mediation Patterns and Television Viewing: Young Children’s Use and Grasp of the Medium,”
Human Communication Research 11 (1985): 461–80; J. C. Wright and others, “Family Television Use and Its
Relation to Children’s Cognitive Skills and Social Behavior,” in Television and the American Family, edited
by J. Bryant (Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum, 1990), pp. 227–52.
118. C. Wachter and J. Kelly, “Exploring VCR Use as a Leisure Activity,” Leisure Sciences 20 (1998): 213–27.
119. Kaiser Family Foundation, Parents and the V-Chip (Menlo Park, Calif.: Kaiser Family Foundation, 2001).
120. A. Lenhart, “Protecting Teens Online” (Washington: Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2005).
121. P. Nikken and J. Jansz, “Parental Mediation of Children’s Videogame Playing: A Comparison of the
Reports by Parents and Children,” Learning, Media, and Technology 31 (2006): 181–202.
122. M. Story and S. French, “Food Advertising and Marketing Directed at Children and Adolescents in the
US,” International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 1 (2004): 3–20.
123. J. Wells and L. Lewis, “Internet Access in U.S. Public Schools and Classrooms: 1994–2005” (Washington:
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2006).
124. The website of the What Works Clearing House is http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/.
125. F. Zimmerman and D. Christakis, “Associations between Content Types of Early Media Exposure and
Subsequent Attentional Problems,” Pediatrics 120 (2007): 986–92.
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86
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Media and Children’s Aggression, Fear, and Altruism
Media and Children’s Aggression, Fear,
and Altruism
Barbara J. Wilson
Summary
Noting that the social and emotional experiences of American children today often heavily
involve electronic media, Barbara Wilson takes a close look at how exposure to screen media
affects children’s well-being and development. She concludes that media influence on children
depends more on the type of content that children find attractive than on the sheer amount of
time they spend in front of the screen.
Wilson begins by reviewing evidence on the link between media and children’s emotions. She
points out that children can learn about the nature and causes of different emotions from
watching the emotional experiences of media characters and that they often experience empathy with those characters. Although research on the long-term effects of media exposure on
children’s emotional skill development is limited, a good deal of evidence shows that media
exposure can contribute to children’s fears and anxieties. Both fictional and news programming
can cause lasting emotional upset, though the themes that upset children differ according to a
child’s age.
Wilson also explores how media exposure affects children’s social development. Strong evidence
shows that violent television programming contributes to children’s aggressive behavior. And
a growing body of work indicates that playing violent video games can have the same harmful
effect. Yet if children spend time with educational programs and situation comedies targeted to
youth, media exposure can have more prosocial effects by increasing children’s altruism, cooperation, and even tolerance for others. Wilson also shows that children’s susceptibility to media
influence can vary according to their gender, their age, how realistic they perceive the media to
be, and how much they identify with characters and people on the screen. She concludes with
guidelines to help parents enhance the positive effects of the media while minimizing the risks
associated with certain types of content.
www.futureofchildren.org
Barbara J. Wilson is the Paul C. Friedland Professorial Scholar and head of the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is grateful to Kristin Drogos for her research assistance and to Craig Anderson and other participants
at the Future of Children conference for their insightful comments.
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Barbara J. Wilson
hildren today live in a world
where many of their experiences are mediated by screen
technologies. Small children
are likely to feel some of their
first fears as they watch a scary movie or
television program, feel some of their earliest
non-familial attachments as they view a
favorite media character, and even experience the beginnings of emotional empathy as
they follow the adventures of a well-liked
media protagonist. Because American
children spend so much time with the media,
much of their social life takes place while
they sit in front of a television or a computer
screen or concentrate on an iPod or a cell
phone. In fact, children under the age of six
spend more time watching television than
they do playing outdoors.1 Historically, the
United States has reached a point where
most of children’s social experiences no
longer consist of face-to-face interactions
with other people.
Children develop their emotional and social
capabilities through a complex process. To
participate effectively in their culture, they
must acquire the norms, rules, and values
that will enable them to form connections
and function in families, peer groups, and
the broader society. They learn about emotions and about relationships from parents,
friends, teachers, and siblings. They also
bring their own personalities, temperaments,
and cognitive abilities to each social situation.
Electronic media too play a role in children’s
socialization. Television programs, movies,
and even the Internet provide children with
a window into popular culture. Children can
come to appreciate norms and standards of
conduct by watching social actors in fictional
stories and can even experience emotional
and social situations in a vicarious way
through the media.
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In this article I review the research evidence
regarding how electronic media influence
children’s emotional and social well-being.
I begin by exploring the role the media can
play in children’s affective or emotional
development. I show how children can learn
about the nature and function of emotions
from the media, and I summarize research
on how electronic media contribute to the
development of empathy in children. Next, I
address the questions of whether the media
can elevate children’s fears and anxieties.
Moving away from emotions, I then explore
the effect of media on children’s social
development. In particular, I examine how
repeated exposure to electronic media can
influence children’s moral development. I
also review evidence about how the media
can affect children’s tendency to behave in a
prosocial manner with others and also their
tendency to act aggressively in social situations. I then sum up the positive and negative
effects of exposure to media on children’s
well-being, commenting on considerations
that make youth susceptible to media’s influence and on ways they can be shielded from
harmful effects. I conclude by discussing
the important role parents can play in their
children’s media experiences.
Two themes emerge in this review. First,
electronic media can have both positive and
negative effects on children’s development. It
is thus simplistic to argue that the media are
detrimental or valuable to children. Much of
the effect depends on the content to which
children are exposed. Some media messages
can teach children positive, prosocial lessons,
while others can lead children to be fearful or
even to behave antisocially. What children are
watching onscreen makes a crucial difference,
perhaps even more than how much time they
spend in front of that screen. Second, not all
children are influenced by the media in the
Media and Children’s Aggression, Fear, and Altruism
same way. A child’s age or developmental
level makes a difference, for example. In
some situations, younger children are more
susceptible to media influence than older
children are. But older children and teens are
certainly not immune. In fact, media content
that is complex or highly abstract is likely to
affect only those with more sophisticated
cognitive skills who can comprehend the
message. A child’s gender, race, temperament,
and home life also come into play. Throughout this article, I will highlight which groups
or types of children are more susceptible to
media’s influence on emotional and social
development.
Media and Emotional Development
Children need emotional skills to form
relationships with others. Indeed, the capacity to recognize and interpret emotions in
others is a fundamental building block of
social competence.2 Developmental psychologists and media scholars alike have argued
that screen media play a crucial role in
children’s emotional development.3 Yet few
studies address this larger issue, in part
because researchers have given so much
empirical attention instead to media’s impact
on maladaptive or antisocial behaviors.
Learning about Emotions
One of the first skills of emotional competence is the ability to recognize emotions in
others. Research indicates that preschoolers
are able to identify and differentiate basic
emotions such as happiness, sadness, and fear
experienced by television characters.4 Very
young children, however, struggle to recognize more complex emotions. They tend to
remember emotions experienced by people
better than those experienced by Muppets or
animated characters, and they do not necessarily focus on emotions of the characters
when retelling the narrative of a television
program.5 By the time they reach age eight,
however, children, especially girls, are more
likely to mention characters’ affective states
when retelling a televised story.6 Older
children also begin to understand television
characters’ more complex emotions, such as
jealousy.7 Like their younger counterparts,
older children’s recall of affect is higher if
they perceive the program as realistic.8
Developmental psychologists
and media scholars alike have
argued that screen media play
a crucial role in children’s
emotional development.
But do emotional portrayals teach children
about emotions? Surprisingly little evidence
on this subject exists. One early study found
that regular viewing of Sesame Street helped
preschoolers learn to recognize emotions and
emotional situations, though the preschoolers
learned more about traditional school-based
content than they did about emotional
content.9 In recent years, Sesame Street has
incorporated emotions and emotional coping
into its curricular goals. Several storylines
during the 1980s, for example, focused on
birth, death, and marriage. In 2001, a series
of episodes focused on a hurricane that hit
New York City and destroyed Big Bird’s
home. Big Bird and his friends spent considerable time dealing with this emotional issue
and rebuilding his nest. Later that year,
Sesame Street tried to help preschoolers cope
with the September 11 terrorist attacks on
New York and Washington by featuring a
story about a grease fire in Hooper’s Store,
which required the help of brave firefighters
to save people. Scholars have conducted no
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programmatic research, however, to ascertain
the long-term effects of watching such content
on preschoolers’ emotional development.
Researchers have found that older children
can learn about emotions from television
content. In a series of studies, Sandra Calvert
and Jennifer Kotler explored how second
through sixth graders’ acquired different types
of information from their favorite programs.10
Samples of children recruited from schools
across the country were invited to visit a
specially designed website to report on what
they had learned from particular television
episodes they had recently viewed. The
researchers found that children do remember
lessons and that they can clearly articulate
them. When asked about programs rated as
educational/informative (E/I), children
reported learning socio-emotional lessons
more often than informational or cognitive
lessons. In other words, the educational
programs taught them more about emotions,
such as overcoming fears and labeling different feelings, and about interpersonal skills,
such as respect, sharing, and loyalty, than
about science, history, or culture. Girls
learned more from these programs than boys
did. This gender difference was attributed to
the fact that girls reported liking such programs more and feeling more involved while
viewing them. Finally, children learned more
of these socio-emotional lessons from their
favorite educational (E/I rated) than from
their favorite entertainment-based programs.
Because the researchers did not disentangle
emotional from social lessons, it is difficult to
ascertain which is more prominently featured
in E/I programming and, in turn, in children’s
subsequent memories. Nor did the study
assess whether this learning persisted over
time and more crucially, whether the lessons
carried over into real life in some way.
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One piece of experimental evidence—
research involving a randomly assigned
control group—demonstrates that children
can transfer to real life the emotional lessons
they learn from TV.11 In the study, elementary
school children from two age groups (kindergarten through second grade and third
through fifth grade) watched a popular family
sitcom whose main plot featured one of two
negative emotions: the fear felt by a young
character about earthquakes or the anger felt
by a young character who fell while trying to
learn how to ride a bicycle. Half the children
in the study (the control group) watched the
main plot only, and half watched a version
where the main plot was accompanied by
a humorous subplot. The presence of the
subplot interfered with the ability of younger
children to understand the emotional event
in the main plot, but not with the ability of
older children. This finding is consistent with
other researchers’ insights into developmental differences in children’s ability to draw
inferences across scenes that are disconnected
in time.12
When asked about programs
rated as educational/informative (E/I), children reported
learning socio-emotional
lessons more often than
informational or cognitive
lessons.
No matter what their age, children who
viewed the humorous subplot tended to minimize the seriousness of the negative emotion.
It may be, then, that the humor in situation
comedies impairs children’s ability to learn
about negative emotional issues from such
Media and Children’s Aggression, Fear, and Altruism
content. The humorous subplot also affected
the children’s perceptions of emotion in real
life. Children who viewed the earthquake
episode with the humorous subplot judged
earthquakes in real life as less severe than did
those who viewed the episode without the
subplot. This pattern was particularly strong
among those who perceived the family sitcom
as highly realistic.
The study demonstrates that a single exposure
to a television episode can alter children’s
ideas about emotions in real life and is consistent with the idea that media portrayals can
influence a child’s mental representation, or
schema, for emotional events. (A schema is
an organized structure of knowledge about
a topic or event that is stored in memory
and helps a person assimilate new information.13) Scholars have theorized that people’s
schemata for emotions include information
about expressive cues, situational causes, and
rules about how to display each emotion.14
Research indicates that children use schemata
to help them interpret what they encounter in
the media.15 In turn, media content can contribute to a child’s schemata. As an example of
this interplay, one study found that children
who perceived television as highly realistic
had mental schemata for real-world occupations such as nursing and policing that were
similar to TV portrayals of such jobs.16
In summary, there is surprisingly little evidence that electronic media affect emotional
development. Early work demonstrates that
regular viewing of Sesame Street can help
preschoolers develop a fuller understanding
of emotions and their causes. More recent
research indicates that elementary school
children, especially girls, can learn socialemotional lessons from television. The type of
content viewed makes a difference. Programs
rated as E/I teach emotional lessons more
effectively than do entertainment-based programs. Some experimental evidence suggests
that children can transfer what they learn
from emotional portrayals on television to their
beliefs about emotional events in real life.
This type of learning is greatest among those
who perceive television as highly realistic.
Once again, the content of the program matters. In one experiment, the simple insertion
of a humorous subplot distorted children’s
perceptions of a negative emotional event in
a program and also caused children to minimize the seriousness of a similar event in real
life. No research as yet addresses the longterm consequences of repeated exposure to
electronic media on emotional development.
It may be that children who are heavy viewers
of, say, situation comedies develop a distorted
perception of emotional problems as trivial
and easily solved in thirty minutes or less. On
the other hand, regular viewers of E/I programs may learn more about the intricacies
of different types of emotional experiences
because such portrayals are not routinely
clouded in humor. Longitudinal studies—
those that follow a cohort of individuals over
a long period—are required to fully explore
these issues.
Emotional Empathy
Learning to feel empathy or share emotions
with others is part of what makes children
effective social agents. Empathic children are
more sensitive to others and are more likely
to engage in socially desirable behavior in
groups.17 Empathy is typically construed as
a developmentally acquired skill, dependent
on a child’s ability to recognize what emotion
the other person is feeling and to role-take,
or imagine the self in that person’s place.18
Infants often respond to the crying of other
babies by crying themselves.19 But this emotional contagion is different from empathy,
though it may be a precursor to it.
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Although children clearly share experiences
with media characters, few researchers have
studied this phenomenon. One early experiment confirms that empathy is a developmental skill.20 In the study, children from
two age groups (three through five and nine
through eleven) watched a movie clip of
either a threatening stimulus or a character’s
fear in response to a threatening stimulus
that was not shown directly. Younger children
were less physiologically aroused and less
frightened by the character’s fear than by the
fear-provoking stimulus. The older children,
however, responded emotionally to both versions of the movie. The preschoolers did not
lack empathy because they failed to recognize
the nature of the character’s emotion—the
vast majority did recognize the character’s
fear. But they were less likely than the older
children to engage in role-taking with the
character, a skill that other studies have found
to emerge around age eight and increase during the elementary school years.21
Besides their developmental stage, other
characteristics of children seem to encourage
empathy with media portrayals. Children,
for example, are more likely to share the
emotions of a same-sex than an opposite-sex
character.22 They are also more likely to experience empathy if they perceive the media
content as realistic.23
To summarize, a few experimental studies
show that children engage in emotional
sharing with well-liked characters. Because
empathy requires the ability to identify others’
emotions and to role-take, older children are
more likely to share the emotional experiences of on-screen characters than younger
children are. Once again, content matters.
Children are more likely to experience
empathy with plot lines and characters that
they perceive as realistic. They are also more
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likely to share the emotions of characters
similar to themselves, presumably because it
is easier to role-take with such characters.
Thus, movies or television programs that
feature younger characters in emotional
situations that are familiar and seem authentic
should produce the strongest empathy in
youth. But all of these insights are derived
from short-term studies. No longitudinal
studies of children’s media exposure over time
address its effect on empathy. Nevertheless, a
recent survey of adults’ lifetime media habits
is suggestive. In the study, adults reported on
their exposure to various types of fiction
(romance, suspense novels, thrillers, science
fiction, fantasy, domestic and foreign fiction)
and nonfiction (science, political commentary,
business, philosophy, psychology, self-help)
print media.24 They also filled out a questionnaire measuring social skills and various facets
of empathy, including perspective-taking.
Even after controlling for age, IQ, and
English fluency, researchers found that
readers who were more exposed to narrative
fiction were more empathic and had higher
general social abilities. Furthermore, readers
of more fiction became more deeply absorbed
in stories. In contrast, readers who were more
exposed to nonfiction were less empathic. In
order to untangle definitively whether
empathic people seek out fiction, or whether
fictional stories help teach empathy, or
whether both are true, researchers will have
to track children’s media habits over time.
Media, Fear, and Anxiety
Children can not only witness and share
emotions experienced by media characters,
but also respond directly to emotionally
charged events depicted in the media. Much
of the research on the media’s capacity to
evoke children’s emotions has focused
narrowly on its ability to arouse their fears and
anxieties. Recent movies such as Monster
Media and Children’s Aggression, Fear, and Altruism
House, Corpse Bride, and Harry Potter and
the Order of the Phoenix are just a few
examples of horror-filled content that is
targeted to children. Classic Disney films such
as Bambi, Snow White, and The Lion King
can also be upsetting to very young children.
Even programs not designed to be scary
sometimes cause fear among younger age
groups. The Incredible Hulk, for example, a
television series featuring a large, greenskinned creature that helps people, was so
frightening to preschoolers that Mister
Rogers’ Neighborhood screened a special
segment to explain the Hulk’s motives and
make-up to young viewers.
Research shows that most preschoolers and
elementary school children have experienced
short-term fright reactions to the media.25
Furthermore, many of these children report
that they regret having seen a particular
scary program or movie.26 In one nationally
representative survey, 62 percent of parents
of two- to seventeen-year-olds agreed that
their children had “sometimes become scared
that something they saw in a movie or on TV
might happen to them.”27 The more pressing
question concerns the long-term ramifications of such emotional reactions.
Long-Term Fears and Phobias
Evidence is growing that the fear induced in
children by the media is sometimes severe
and long-lasting. A survey of more than
2,000 elementary and middle school children revealed that heavy television viewing
was associated with self-reported symptoms
of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic
stress.28 Watching more than six hours of
television a day put children at greater risk
for scoring in the clinical range of these
trauma symptoms. A survey of nearly 500
parents of elementary school children found
that the children who watched television just
before bedtime had greater difficulty falling
asleep, were more anxious at bedtime, and
had higher rates of nightmares.29 It is difficult
to draw firm causal conclusions from these
studies, which simply correlate television
watching and anxiety, but it seems more likely
that heavy watching would trigger fearfulness
than that skittish children would seek out
television before bedtime.
Research shows that
most preschoolers and
elementary school children
have experienced shortterm fright reactions
to the media.
Using a different approach, Kristen Harrison
and Joanne Cantor interviewed a sample of
150 college students at two universities about
their memories of intense fears related to the
media.30 A full 90 percent of the students were
able to describe in detail a movie or television
program that had frightened them in a lasting
way. Although most had seen the show during
childhood or adolescence, 26 percent reported
still experiencing “residual anxiety” as an adult.
When questioned about long-term effects,
more than half of the sample (52 percent)
reported disturbances in sleep or eating after
seeing the TV show or movie. In addition, 36
percent said they avoided real-life situations
similar to the events depicted in the media, 22
percent reported being mentally preoccupied
or obsessed with the frightening content, and
17 percent said they avoided similar movies or
television programs. The researchers also
found that the younger the child was at the
time of the exposure, the longer the fear
lasted.
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The media content that upsets children varies
by age. Preschoolers and younger elementary
school children (two to seven years of age)
are most frightened by characters and events
that look or sound scary.31 Creatures such as
ghosts, witches, and monsters are likely to
provoke fear in younger children; even characters that are benign but visually grotesque,
such as E.T., can be upsetting to a preschooler, much to the surprise of many parents. This pattern is consistent with younger
children’s perceptual dependence, their
tendency to fixate on visual and auditory cues
rather than more conceptual information
such as the motives of a character.32 Older
elementary school children (eight to twelve
years of age) are frightened more by scenes
involving injury, violence, and personal
harm.33 Older children also are more responsive than younger children are to events in
the media that seem realistic or could happen
in real life.34 This heightened responsiveness
is consistent with their more mature understanding of the distinction between fantasy
and reality.35 Several studies have found, for
example, that older children or tweens (age
eight to twelve) are more frightened by television news than are younger children.36
Catastrophic news events, in particular, have
raised concerns among many parents in
recent years. Round-the-clock coverage of
child abductions, war, terrorism, and even
hurricanes has made it difficult to shield
young children from graphic news stories.
Indeed, the content of television news has
become more violent and graphic over time.37
Several studies have found that exposure to
news increases children’s fear and anxiety. One
study examined sixth graders suffering from
post-traumatic stress disorder two years after
the Oklahoma City bombing.38 The disorder is
characterized by intense fear, helplessness,
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T H E F U T UR E OF C HI LDRE N
horror, and disorganized or agitated behavior.
The children in the study lived 100 miles away
from the event, had no direct exposure to it,
and knew no one affected by the bombing. Yet
almost 20 percent reported that the event
continued to cause them to have difficulty
functioning at school or at home, or both, two
years later. Moreover, children who had
watched, listened to, or read more news about
the bombing reported greater symptoms of
post-traumatic stress.
According to cultivation
theory, people who watch a
great deal of television will
come to perceive the real
world as being consistent with
what they see on the screen.
Researchers have reported similar findings
in the wake of the September 11 terrorist
attacks. One nationally representative survey
of parents found that 35 percent of American children experienced one or more stress
symptoms, such as difficulty falling asleep or
trouble concentrating, after the attacks and
that 47 percent were worried about their own
safety or the safety of loved ones.39 Children
who watched more TV coverage of the attacks
had significantly greater stress symptoms.
In general, children’s fear reactions to the
news are intensified if they live in close
geographic proximity to the tragedy.40 Fear
is also greater among children who closely
identify with the victims of tragic events.41
Finally, older elementary school children
tend to be more frightened by these types
of news stories than do younger children.42
Older children feel heightened fear partly
Media and Children’s Aggression, Fear, and Altruism
because they watch more news than young
children do.43 They are also more likely to be
able to comprehend news stories, which often
contain abstract terminology, such as terrorism and abduction, and fewer visuals than
fictional, entertainment media content does.44
But as with fictional content, developmental
differences help explain which types of news
stories children find frightening. Although
children under the age of eight are less likely
to be scared of the news, when they are, it is
most often in response to stories with graphic
and intense visual images, such as natural
disasters and accidents.45 Older children are
more likely to be upset by stories involving
crime and violence.46
To summarize, a moderate amount of evidence links media exposure, both to fictional
content and to the news, with children’s
fears and anxieties. Cross-sectional snapshotin-time studies indicate that most children
have experienced fright, sometimes intense
and enduring, in response to media content.
Experimental studies corroborate that the
types of content that upset children vary as
a function of age. Children under eight are
most often frightened by fantasy portrayals
that involve gruesome or ugly-looking characters. Children older than eight are more
upset by realistic portrayals, including the
news, involving personal injury and violence.
Fear reactions differ by gender as well. Girls
tend to experience more fear from media
than boys do, especially as they get older.47
But gender differences are more pronounced
for self-reported fear than for physical measures of fear, such as facial expressions. Thus,
gender differences may reflect socialization
differences among girls and boys.
Longitudinal evidence also links media and
fear. Heavy exposure to major catastrophes in
the news is associated with intense fear and
even post-traumatic stress in children. But
although most of the longitudinal evidence
pertains to news events, one recent study suggests that television viewing in general may
be linked to children’s fear. Jeffrey Johnson
and several colleagues followed the television
viewing habits and sleep problems of a cohort
of adolescents at age fourteen, sixteen, and
twenty-two.48 Those who watched three or
more hours of television daily at age fourteen
were significantly more likely than lighter
viewers to have trouble falling asleep and to
wake frequently at night at ages sixteen and
twenty-two. The link held true even after
researchers controlled for previous sleep
problems, psychiatric disorders, and parental
education, income, and neglect. And the link
ran only one way: sleep problems in the early
years did not predict greater television viewing in later years. The study, however, did not
assess what the teens were watching on television. Clearly, more longitudinal studies are
needed on how exposure to different types
of fictional and nonfictional media content
affects children’s fears and worries.
Cultivating a Fear of Victimization
Media can also contribute to long-term fear
through cultivation—its influence on people’s
conceptions of social reality. According to cultivation theory, people who watch a great deal
of television will come to perceive the real
world as being consistent with what they see
on the screen.49 Cultivation theory has been
applied to many types of reality beliefs, but
much of the focus has been on perceptions
about violence.
Researchers’ preoccupation with violence is
partly owing to the prevalence of aggression
in American media. Large-scale studies of
television programming, for example, have
documented that nearly two out of three
programs contain some physical violence.50
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Moreover, a typical hour of television features
an average of six different violent exchanges
between perpetrators and victims. The extent
of violence in programs targeted to children
is even higher; 70 percent of children’s shows
contain violence, with an average of fourteen
violent interchanges an hour.51
How does all this violence affect people’s perceptions of reality? Studies have found that
frequent viewers of television, no matter what
their age, see the world as a more dangerous
place and are more frightened of being a victim of violence than infrequent viewers are.52
Most of the evidence is correlational, but a
few experiments using control groups show
that repeated exposure to television violence
increases people’s fear of victimization.53
Combining all the evidence, Michael Morgan
and James Shanahan conducted a metaanalysis of published studies on cultivation
that combined all the individual studies to get
an aggregate numerical effect size. According
to scientific convention, an effect size of 0.10
is considered small, 0.30 is medium, and 0.50
is large.54 Morgan and Shanahan found that
television had a small but statistically significant effect on people’s perceptions of violence (r = .10).55 The effect was slightly larger
for adults than for children, but because
fewer studies involved younger age groups,
this finding may not be reliable.
Early cultivation research focused on the
sheer number of hours that people watch
television, based on the assumption that
violent content is formulaic and pervasive
regardless of what is viewed. More recently,
scholars have begun looking at particular
types of genres, especially the news.56 In
one study, elementary school children who
frequently watched the news believed there
were more murders in a nearby city than did
infrequent viewers, even when researchers
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T H E F U T UR E OF C HI LDRE N
controlled for grade level, gender, exposure
to fictional media violence, and overall TV
viewing.57 Another survey found that children
and teens who were heavy viewers of the
news were more frightened by high-profile
child kidnapping stories such as the Elizabeth Smart case than were light viewers of
the news.58 Heavy viewers of the news were
also personally more worried about being
abducted than light viewers were, even after
researchers controlled for the child’s age and
gender as well as for parental news viewing
and parental fear of abduction. Children’s
fear of kidnapping was not related to overall
television exposure, only to news viewing.
Kidnapping is one news topic that the media
tend to sensationalize. Since the late 1990s,
the number of stories about child kidnapping in the news has been on the rise.59 Yet
kidnapping constitutes less than 2 percent
of all violent crimes in the United States targeted at children under the age of eighteen.60
Moreover, children are far more likely to be
abducted by someone they know than by a
stranger. In 1997, for example, 40 percent of
juvenile kidnappings were perpetrated by a
family member, 27 percent by an acquaintance, and 24 percent by a stranger.61 A very
small fraction of abductions are what the FBI
calls “stereotypical” kidnapping cases involving a child taken overnight and transported
over some distance to be kept or killed.
Despite these statistics, there has been a rash
of stories in the news about stranger kidnappings. Dramatic programs such as NBC’s
Kidnapped and USA’s America’s Most Wanted
also focus on abduction. These fictional and
nonfictional stories may attract viewers, but
they can also fuel an exaggerated fear of violence in young children.
To summarize, researchers have found
modest evidence that electronic media can
Media and Children’s Aggression, Fear, and Altruism
influence children’s perceptions of how
dangerous the world is. This effect is particularly evident among children who watch a
great deal of news programming. Most of the
evidence, however, is correlational, not causal,
and is a snapshot of its subjects at one time.
To date, no longitudinal research has tracked
children over time to determine the longterm effects of such exposure on children’s
perceptions of social reality.
Media and Moral Development
One criticism often leveled against the media
is that they are contributing to the decay
of morality. Indeed, a recent national poll
reported that 70 percent of Americans are very
or somewhat worried that popular culture, as
portrayed in television and movies, is lowering
moral standards in the United States.62 The
concern is fueled by the tremendous amount
of time youth are spending with the media
and by their easy access to explicit content.
Children can readily find stories about violence, sexual promiscuity, theft, and greed in
a variety of media outlets including fictional
programming, reality shows, rap music, and
the Internet. Almost no research, however,
focuses on how the media shape children’s
moral development. Researchers have written widely on how the media affect children’s
behaviors, both prosocial and antisocial. But
they have paid little attention to the moral lessons children learn from the media that may
be underlying these behaviors.
Moral development in children follows a
predictable developmental path. When
presented with an ethical dilemma, children
under the age of eight typically judge an
action as wrong or incorrect when it results in
punishment or goes against the rules set forth
by authority figures.63 As children mature,
they begin to consider multiple perspectives
in a situation, taking into account the
intentions and motives of those involved and
recognizing the often-conflicting rules
inherent in moral dilemmas. In other words,
their moral reasoning becomes more flexible
and “other” oriented.
Marina Krcmar and her colleagues have conducted several studies on whether watching
violence on television affects children’s moral
reasoning. In one survey, they presented sixto twelve-year-olds with hypothetical stories
in which a perpetrator performed aggression
either for reasons of protection, called “justified” violence, or for random reasons, called
“unjustified” violence.64 Most of the children
perceived the unjustified aggression to be
wrong. But children who were heavy viewers
of fantasy violence programs such as Power
Rangers were more likely than children who
seldom watched such programs to judge the
“justified” aggression in the stories as being
morally correct. And indeed researchers have
found that much of the violence in popular
superhero cartoons is portrayed as justified.65
In the Krcmar study, both children who
watched a great deal of fantasy violence and
those who watched more realistic entertainment violence, such as Cops, displayed less
advanced moral reasoning strategies, focusing
more on rules and the presence or absence
of punishment in their reasoning about moral
dilemmas.
A follow-up study found the same pattern.66
Again, children who watched a great deal of
fantasy violence were more likely than light
viewers to perceive justified violence as
morally acceptable. Heavy doses of fantasy
violence also were linked with a child’s ability
to take on someone else’s perspective. In
particular, children heavily exposed to fantasy
violence had less advanced role-taking
abilities, which in turn predicted less sophisticated moral reasoning skills. This second
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study also looked at the family’s influence on
children’s television viewing and moral
reasoning. In families where parents stressed
communication, children were less likely to
watch fantasy violence on television and
therefore exhibited higher moral reasoning
skills. Parents who stressed control had
children who watched more fantasy violence
and had less advanced moral reasoning.
seen the violent clip displayed reasoning
skills that were on par with those of younger
children (five to eight years) in the control
group. The experiment demonstrates that
exposure to a single program containing fantasy violence can alter children’s short-term
moral evaluations of aggression and can even
adversely affect the strategies they use to
make sense of those evaluations.
Both these studies suggest that watching a
great deal of violence on television may hinder children’s moral development. Yet it may
also be that children with less sophisticated
moral skills are drawn to violent programs,
especially superhero shows, because their
fairly simplistic storylines depict aggression as
typically justified and rarely punished.67
Unexpectedly, the study found that children
who viewed the nonviolent version of the
cartoon reacted much the same as those
who viewed the violent version; that is,
they judged violence as being more morally
acceptable than did members of the control
group. The authors reasoned that action cartoons might be so familiar to children and so
typically full of violence that even watching a
nonviolent segment from this genre triggers
mental models or schemata in children that
involve justified violence.
Two recent studies shed some light on this
puzzle. In an experiment, Marina Krcmar
and Stephen Curtis tested the causal effect of
television on children’s moral conceptions of
right and wrong.68 Children between the ages
of five and fourteen were randomly assigned
to one of three groups: one group watched
an action cartoon that featured characters
arguing and eventually engaging in violence;
another group watched a similar clip involving an argument from which the characters
walked away instead of fighting; and a control
group did not watch television. Afterward,
children listened to and judged four hypothetical stories involving violence. Children
who had watched the violent program were
more likely than those in the control group
to judge violence as morally acceptable.
They also exhibited less sophisticated moral
reasoning in their responses, often relying
on authority or punishment as rationales (for
example, “You shouldn’t hit because you’ll
get in trouble”). The reaction was the same
regardless of the children’s age. In fact, older
children (nine to fourteen years) who had
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A second study, in this case a longitudinal one,
also illuminates how the media affect moral
development. Judy Dunn and Claire Hughes
tracked forty “hard-to-manage” preschoolers
and forty matched control children over a
two-year period, measuring their cognitive
skills, social behavior, and emotional functioning.69 The two groups of preschoolers engaged
in similar amounts of pretend play at age four,
but the hard-to-manage children were
substantially more likely to engage in play that
involved killing, death, and physical violence.
Many of these fantasy play incidents were tied
to media characters and programs. In addition, children from both groups who engaged
in much violent pretend play at age four had
significantly lower moral reasoning scores at
age six, even after researchers controlled for
verbal ability, aggression, and friendship
quality at age four. These violent-play children
were more likely than their peers to respond
Media and Children’s Aggression, Fear, and Altruism
in selfish or hedonistic ways to moral dilemmas, often focusing on punishments rather
than on the motives and feelings of the story
characters. Although the study did not directly
measure children’s media habits, the preschoolers’ violent fantasy play was often tied
to violent television and movies they had seen.
The focus of research to date
has been on detrimental
effects of media exposure, not
on whether some programs
and genres can enhance
moral development.
To summarize, some research suggests that
extensive viewing of television violence can
alter children’s views about the acceptability
of violence and perhaps even hinder the
development of their moral reasoning.
Fantasy violence that is portrayed as justified
or heroic is most strongly implicated here,
again suggesting that the type of content
children watch is important. Such conclusions
must be tentative, however, because of the
paucity of studies in this area. With the
exception of one experiment and one longitudinal study, nearly all the evidence is of the
snapshot-in-time variety and does not permit
drawing causal conclusions. In addition, the
research has examined only children’s moral
views about aggression. It has paid little
attention to media’s effect on other moral
issues such as altruism and even other types
of antisocial behavior such as cheating, lying,
and stealing. Finally, the focus to date has
been on detrimental effects of media exposure, not on whether some programs and
genres can enhance moral development. And
the research has focused solely on television.
Websites, video games, movies, and even
children’s books sometimes grapple with
moral dilemmas, and researchers need to
explore their impact as well.
Media and Antisocial Behavior
No issue in the media effects arena has
received as much attention as violence. Television, movies, video games, and even rap
music have been widely criticized for portraying physical aggression as an entertaining
solution to problems. Today, most American
parents believe there is too much violence in
the media and that it is harmful to society.70
Researchers have used scientific methods to
quantify the violence in different media. The
National Television Violence Study, a threeyear assessment of more than 3,000 programs
a year, found that a steady 60 percent of
programs across twenty-six channels contain
some physical aggression.71 On average, a
typical hour of programming features six
different violent incidents. Violence varies
considerably by genre and channel, however.
Children’s programming is more violent
than all other program types, and virtually
all superhero cartoons as well as slapstick
cartoons contain violence.72 In terms of channels, only 18 percent of PBS programming
contains violent content, compared with
84 percent of premium cable shows, such
as HBO, 51 percent of broadcast network
shows, and 63 percent of basic cable shows.
Other media products that are targeted to
youth also contain violence. One study found
that virtually all G-rated movies released
between 1937 and 1999 featured some violence.73 Another study found that 64 percent
of E-rated (for “Everyone”) video games
released between 1985 and 2000 contained
physical violence.74
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What happens when a child is exposed to
violent entertainment? Two theories are
helpful in answering that question. One, social
cognitive theory (formerly called social
learning), posits that children learn ideas,
values, emotions, and even behaviors by
observing others in their social environment.75
Children can imitate people in their immediate surroundings or they can imitate characters in the media. Indeed, children as young
as one are capable of imitating simple behaviors displayed on television.76 According to
social learning theory, children are more likely
to imitate observed behaviors that are
rewarded than those that are punished.77
Children will also imitate behaviors that
produce no consequences because, especially
in the case of antisocial acts, the lack of
punishment can serve as a tacit reward.78 The
type of media role model also makes a
difference. Children are most likely to learn
from models that are attractive and from
those they perceive as similar to themselves.79
Social cognitive theory, then, helps explain
how children can acquire new behaviors
from watching a media character on the
screen. Rowell Huesmann uses a second
theory, information processing theory, to
explain the long-term effects of media exposure. Focusing on the learning of scripts—
mental routines for familiar events that are
stored in a person’s memory—Huesmann
theorizes that children develop scripts for
bedtime routines, for going to the doctor,
and even for getting ready for school.80 He
argues that a child who is exposed to a great
deal of violence, either in real life or through
the media, will acquire scripts that promote
aggression as a way of solving problems.
Once learned, these scripts can be retrieved
from memory at any time, especially when
the situation at hand resembles features of
the script. The more often an aggressive
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T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
script is retrieved, the more it is reinforced
and becomes applicable to a wider set of circumstances. Thus, children who are repeatedly exposed to media violence develop a
stable set of aggressive scripts that are easily
prompted and serve as a guide in responding
to social situations.
Scholars have written hundreds of studies of
the impact of media violence on children’s
aggressive behavior.81 In 2000, six major
medical organizations (American Academy
of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child
and Adolescent Psychiatry, American Psychological Association, American Medical
Association, American Academy of Family
Physicians, and American Psychiatric Association) reviewed this research and issued a
joint statement to Congress, concluding that
“viewing entertainment violence can lead to
increases in aggressive attitudes, values, and
behavior, particularly in children.”82 In this
section, I will review the findings concerning
the impact of media on physical aggression as
well as social aggression.
Physical Aggression
In support of social cognitive theory, numerous experiments show that children will
imitate violent behaviors they see on television, particularly if the violence is rewarded.
As an example, one study exposed elementary
school children to a single episode of the
Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and then
observed verbal and physical aggression in the
classroom.83 Compared with a control group,
children and especially boys who had watched
the violent program committed significantly
more intentional acts of aggression such as
hitting, kicking, and shoving. In fact, for every
aggressive behavior enacted by children in
the control group, children who had seen
the Power Rangers committed seven aggressive acts. Other research shows that children,
Media and Children’s Aggression, Fear, and Altruism
especially preschoolers, will imitate a cartoon
character as readily as a human character and
that they can reproduce aggressive behaviors
they have seen on TV up to eight months
later.84
But experiments are capable of testing
short-term effects only. It will take longitudinal studies that track children over time to
assess the long-term effects of media violence. Rowell Huesmann and his colleagues
have conducted several of these studies, the
most recent one involving more than 500
elementary school children.85 The researchers
collected measures of television viewing and
aggressive behavior when the children were
in grade school and then again fifteen years
later when they were adults. The composite
measure of adult aggression included self-reports of spousal abuse, punching and choking
another person, and shoving others, as well
as documented criminal behavior. In support
of the idea of learned scripts, heavy exposure
to television violence in childhood predicted
increased physical aggression in adulthood.
This pattern held for both boys and girls, even
after researchers controlled for the child’s initial level of aggressiveness, the child’s IQ, the
parents’ education, the parents’ TV habits, the
parents’ aggression, and the socioeconomic
status of the family. The reverse, however,
was not true: being aggressive in childhood
did not predict more viewing of violence in
adulthood. Put another way, there was more
evidence that television viewing contributed
to subsequent aggression than that being
aggressive led to more viewing of violence.
In one of the most extensive meta-analyses of
television violence, Haejung Paik and George
Comstock analyzed 217 studies and found an
overall effect size of .31, a medium effect.86
Animated and fantasy violence had a stronger effect on aggression than more realistic
programming did, which challenges the claim
that cartoons are innocuous. The effect of
television violence on aggression also varied
with age: the effect was greatest on preschool
children younger than six. The effect was also
slightly larger on boys than on girls.
To provide some context, Brad Bushman
and Craig Anderson compared the effect of
television violence on aggression with other
well-established connections in the medical
field.87 The television violence-aggression link
turns out to be larger than the link between
lead exposure and children’s IQ. The effect
of television violence on aggression is only
slightly smaller than the documented effect
of smoking on lung cancer.
Clearly, repeated exposure to television
violence poses risks for children. What about
playing violent video games? That topic has
attracted less research, particularly with
regard to youth. A few early experiments
showed that video game play had no effect on
children’s aggression.88 The violent games
tested in these studies, however, were quite
mild compared with the games available
today. The more recent experimental evidence
generally is in line with studies of violent
television.89 The largest experiment to date
randomly assigned 161 nine- to twelve-yearolds to play a violent or a nonviolent video
game for twenty minutes.90 Two different
E-rated (for “Everyone”) violent games were
used; both involved cartoon-like characters
engaging in continuous violence again nonhuman enemies. Afterward, children played
another computer game that allowed them to
select how much punishment, such as a
noxious noise blast, to deliver to an opponent,
whom they were told was a competitor in the
game. Children who played a violent video
game delivered significantly more intense
noise blasts than did those who played a
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nonviolent game. Although boys were generally more punitive (that is, aggressive) than
girls were, playing violent video games
increased short-term aggression in both
genders.
To date, only one published study has
focused on the long-term effects of playing
violent video games on youth.91 Craig Anderson and several colleagues tested a sample of
430 third through fifth graders twice, roughly
five months apart. Children were asked
to report on their violent media exposure,
aggression, and hostile attribution bias (that
is, their tendency to perceive ambiguous
situations in a hostile fashion). In addition,
the study collected teacher reports and peer
ratings of aggression for the children. The
study revealed that students who played
violent video games early in the school year
engaged in significantly increased physical
aggression and hostile attributions several
months later. The patterns held up even after
researchers controlled for sex, race, initial
levels of aggression, total time spent with
screen media, and parental involvement.
Viewing violence on television also predicted
increases in aggression over time, but the
effect of video game playing was more robust
after various controls were introduced.
Although the evidence available is not large,
scholars have conducted meta-analyses on
the video game research. The most recent
analysis evaluated thirty-two independent
samples of participants and found a significant and positive overall effect size of .20.92
When researchers eliminated studies with
serious methodological shortcomings, the
effect size rose to .25, which is closer to the
effect documented for television violence. It
should be noted, however, that most of the
studies in this meta-analysis involve adults
rather than children.
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T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
To summarize, scholars have accumulated
strong evidence from experiments, surveys,
and longitudinal studies that viewing violent
television programming contributes to both
short-term and long-term increases in children’s aggressive behavior. Younger children
may be particularly vulnerable to social learning from television, although older children
are not immune and can be primed to act
aggressively after viewing violent programs.
Boys show slightly stronger effects than girls
do, but no demographic group is immune
to this type of influence. The evidence on
violent video games is less extensive but is
growing. Controlled experiments, surveys,
and one longitudinal study now document a
link between game playing and aggression in
children. Again, boys show slightly stronger
effects, but they also play more video games
and prefer violent content more than girls
do.93 Some speculate that video games may
be more harmful than television because they
are highly involving and often allow players
to become violent perpetrators, strengthening the personal identification in this fantasy
violence. Yet comparing the effects of television and video games may be less important
than looking at a child’s overall media diet.
As it turns out, youth who are attracted to
violence on television are also more likely to
play violent video games.94 All of these screen
experiences can increase and reinforce the
number of aggressive scripts that a child
develops in memory.
Social or Relational Aggression
Parents, teachers, and even researchers have
been so preoccupied with physical aggression
that they have tended to overlook other forms
of hostility, especially those that are more
social or relational in nature. Social aggression
involves harming others’ feelings through
social exclusion, gossip, or friendship manipulation. This type of behavior begins to emerge
Media and Children’s Aggression, Fear, and Altruism
Table 1. Top 10 Cable TV Programs, Week of March 5, 2007
Millions of viewers
Rank
Program
Network
Rating
Viewers
1
WWE Entertainment (WWE Raw)
USA
3.6
6.152
2
WWE Entertainment (WWE Raw)
USA
3.2
5.356
3
I Love New York
VH1
2.5
4.066
4
SpongeBob
NICK
2.4
3.604
4
Fairly Odd Parents
NICK
2.4
3.495
4
Princess Diaries, The
DSNY
2.4
3.700
7
Zoey 101
NICK
2.3
3.303
7
Fairly Odd Parents
NICK
2.3
3.387
7
SpongeBob
NICK
2.3
3.155
10
Drake and Josh
NICK
2.2
3.156
10
SpongeBob
NICK
2.2
3.302
10
Law and Order: SVU
USA
2.2
3.271
10
Ned Declassified
NICK
2.2
3.065
10
Parent Trap, The (1998)
DSNY
2.2
3.354
10
Family Guy
ADSM
2.2
3.257
10
Ned Declassified
NICK
2.2
3.072
Note: Rankings are based on Nielsen Media Research’s national people meter sample. Ratings are estimates of the size of the television viewing audience, relative to the total television households in the United States (110.2 million households). Viewers include
anyone over the age of two. Several programs are mentioned more than once because they run during multiple time slots during the
week, and the data do not provide the different time slots for these programs.
as early as the preschool years and is more
common among girls than boys.95
The popularity of movies such as Mean Girls
and television programs such as Lizzy
McGuire, which feature girl friendship
struggles, have led some to ask what role the
media play in children’s social aggression. The
topic, however, has attracted little research.
One study found incidents of relational
aggression in 92 percent of television programs popular with teens.96 Another study
found that teens who viewed social aggression
on television tended to practice such behavior.97 Longitudinal research has linked heavy
exposure to television violence in childhood to
increased social aggression in adult females,
even after controlling for childhood aggression, childhood IQ, parental education,
parental TV habits, and the socioeconomic
status of the family.98 Although these studies
are suggestive, it will not be possible to draw
conclusions about whether media violence
causes this alternative form of childhood
aggression until more research is conducted.
Media and Prosocial Behavior
So much public attention has been paid to
potential negative effects of the media on
children that parents and researchers alike
have scarcely acknowledged the positive. Yet
if television and movies can teach children
antisocial behaviors such as aggression, then
it makes sense that these same media can
teach beneficial behaviors as well. The challenge is to differentiate the media messages
that are potentially harmful from those that
are positive or prosocial in nature.
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Barbara J. Wilson
Prosocial behavior can be broadly defined as
any voluntary behavior intended to benefit
another person.99 Altruism is the most common example of prosocial behavior. Others
are friendliness, sharing, cooperation, sympathy, and even acceptance of others from
different groups.
Clearly children are exposed to a great deal
of violence in the media. But how often do
they witness prosocial behavior? One recent,
large-scale study examined a randomly
selected week of television programming
across eighteen channels.100 The total sample
included more than 2,000 entertainment
shows. Nearly three-fourths of the programs
(73 percent) featured at least one act of
altruism, defined as helping, sharing, giving,
or donating. On average, viewers of these
programs saw about three acts of altruism an
hour. Human characters rather than anthropomorphized ones enacted most of the
altruism, and about one-third of the behaviors were explicitly rewarded in the plot.
Altruism was more common in situation
comedies and children’s shows than in other
types of programs. It was also more common
on children’s cable networks such as Disney
and Nickelodeon than on general audience
cable such as A&E or TNT or on the
broadcast networks. Thus, programs targeted to younger viewers often portray
helping behavior. As examples, Sesame
Street (PBS), Dora the Explorer (Nickelodeon), and Dragon Tales (PBS) are popular
prosocial and educational programs for
preschoolers. Arthur (PBS) and The Wild
Thornberrys (Nickelodeon) are prosocial
shows that are well liked by younger elementary school children, and The Suite Life
of Zack and Cody (Disney) and Drake and
Josh (Nickelodeon) are prosocial shows
popular among older elementary school
children.
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T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
Comparing the findings on prosocial TV
content with those of the National Television
Violence Study reveals much about the
landscape of television.101 Children are more
likely to encounter depictions of altruism (in
three out of four programs) than of physical
aggression (in two out of three programs)
when they watch television. But the concentration of altruistic behaviors is lower (three
incidents an hour) than that of violence (six
incidents an hour). In children’s programming itself, altruism occurs about four times
an hour, but violence occurs roughly fourteen
times an hour. Thus, an American child who
watches an average of three hours a day of
children’s television programming will see
4,380 acts of altruism and 15,330 acts of
violence each year.
But children and adults do not watch television indiscriminately. They are generally
selective and gravitate toward their favorite
programs. An examination of the top-rated
programs on cable television is revealing (see
table 1).
In a typical week in 2007, most of the top
cable shows were targeted to children and
were featured on children’s networks such as
Nickelodeon. Most were also situation comedies about young people in social situations.
Zoey 101, for example, features a teenage
character named Zoey who is one of the first
girls to attend an all-boys boarding school.
She is described as “a quick thinker who is
constantly saving the day with her smarts and
problem-solving skills.” Other child-oriented
programs on this list such as Drake and Josh
are similarly prosocial in nature. Nevertheless, the top two programs that same week
were two episodes of WWE Entertainment
Raw, which features professional TV wrestling. Because these ratings are not calibrated
by age, it may be tempting to conclude that
Media and Children’s Aggression, Fear, and Altruism
children are watching the Nickelodeon and
Disney shows, whereas adults are watching
the violent wrestling shows. Yet 15 percent of
the audience for wrestling shows consists of
children under the age of twelve.102
The TV ratings data highlight both the variety
of programming available to youth and the
challenge of guiding youthful preferences in
a prosocial direction. In the next sections, I
will explore the impact of the media on three
types of prosocial children’s behaviors: altruism, positive social interaction, and acceptance of others.
Altruism
Most of the research on prosocial effects of
the media focuses on children’s altruism or
helping behavior. Early studies had children
watch a television clip that featured a character engaging in helping behavior and then
placed the children is a similar situation to
see if they would imitate the behavior. In
one experiment, first graders who viewed an
episode of Lassie in which the main character saved a puppy were subsequently more
helpful toward distressed puppies than were
first graders who saw a neutral Lassie episode
with no prosocial behavior or a Brady Bunch
episode with no prosocial displays or dogs.103
Of course, one question is whether such
short-term imitation can persist beyond the
viewing situation. Field experiments that
control children’s viewing over time in
naturalistic settings can shed light on this
issue. In one such study, kindergartners were
assigned to watch either Mister Rogers’
Neighborhood or neutral programming that
did not feature prosocial behavior, over the
course of four sessions.104 In addition, some
of the children watching the prosocial Mister
Rogers received puppet role-play training
that re-enacted the main events and dialogue
in each episode they had seen. Two to three
days later, all the children were given the
opportunity either to work on an art project
or to help another child who was struggling
with the project. The children who had
viewed the prosocial programs were more
helpful than those who had seen the neutral
programs were, especially if the prosocial
programming had been reinforced by roleplaying.
Other studies have found that training or
follow-up lessons can enhance the effects of
prosocial television.105 One reason why such
guidance may be beneficial is that prosocial
morals on television can be difficult for
children to extract. Compared with violent
programming, prosocial shows typically have
less action and more dialogue, which makes
their plots and subplots more challenging to
follow and comprehend, especially for
younger children. In one study, four- to
ten-year-olds watched an episode of the
Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and were
asked about possible lessons in the program.106 Most of the children agreed that
there was a “moral” to the show, yet only the
eight- to ten-year-olds were able to identify
the lesson—in this case, that work should
come before play. The younger children
focused instead on the fighting in the program. Other research demonstrates that
moral lessons on television that are conveyed
in the context of violence are often misunderstood by children under the age of eight.107
Social Interaction
Another concern often voiced about screen
media is that they may interfere with children’s social interaction. Indeed, preschoolers
and their parents spend less time talking with
and looking at each other when the television
set is turned on than when it is off.108 Moreover, families that eat dinner in front of the
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Barbara J. Wilson
television converse less and talk about fewer
topics than do families that turn the television
off before they sit down to dinner.109 On the
positive side, families engage in more physical contact and cuddling when they watch
television together than when they are doing
other activities.110
Although the sheer amount of time spent
in front of a TV or computer screen may
have detrimental effects on social interaction, viewing particular types of programs
can teach children social skills. One early
study found that second and third graders
who watched a single episode of The Waltons
displayed more cooperative behavior in a
prisoner’s dilemma game than did students
in a control group who had not seen the
program.111 A single episode of prosocial
television, however, may not be sufficient
for teaching cooperation among younger,
preschool-aged children.112 Part of the difficulty here is that cooperation is more difficult
to model behaviorally than helping is. Also,
good drama often features cooperation after a
period of interpersonal conflict, and this type
of mixed message is likely to be particularly
confusing for younger viewers.
Even though a single program may do little,
repeated exposure to prosocial television can
affect preschoolers’ social behavior. In one
study, three- to five-year-olds watched fifteen
minutes a day of either Sesame Street or
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in their preschool.113 The study observed the children’s
social behaviors before, during, and one
week after the treatment. Exposure to Mister
Rogers increased the sheer amount of social
contact preschoolers had in the classroom
and increased their giving of positive attention such as praise and physical affection to
others. Sesame Street had a similar positive
effect, but only for those who were low in
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T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
social skills at the baseline. Because the study
did not include a no-exposure control group,
it does not permit firm causal conclusions.
Nevertheless, it suggests that regular viewing of particular TV series may have a lasting
impact on children’s social behavior.
Acceptance of Others
The casts of prosocial and educational programs for children, such as Sesame Street and
Dora the Explorer, are typically more diverse
than those of adult or general audience
television.114 Such programming also portrays
children from different racial and ethnic
groups interacting with one another. Early
research on Sesame Street found that over
time, preschoolers who watched the program
extensively developed more positive attitudes
toward people of different groups.115 More
recently, Children’s Television Workshop, the
creator of Sesame Street, has developed content that explicitly tries to teach tolerance and
respect for others. One such effort is Rechov
Sumsum/Shara’a Simsim, a series broadcast
throughout Israel and Palestine. Like Sesame
Street, the program teaches basic educational
lessons to preschoolers, but it also features
characters who live on an Israeli street
(Rechov Sumsum) and visit their friends who
live on a Palestinian street (Shara’a Simsim).
One research study compared the social
attitudes of Israeli-Jewish, Palestinian-Israeli,
and Palestinian preschoolers before the
series debut in 1998 and four months later.116
Before the show began airing, children as
young as four held negative stereotypes about
people from the other culture, reflecting the
political turmoil in this region. Four months
after the series had been regularly aired on
TV, the two groups of Israeli children showed
more positive attitudes toward Arabs. Unexpectedly, the Palestinian children’s attitudes
toward Jews became more negative, suggesting a boomerang effect of sorts. The study
Media and Children’s Aggression, Fear, and Altruism
Figure 1. Effect Sizes Of Exposure to Various Types of Media Content and Various Social
Outcomes, from Various Meta-analysis Studies
0.4
0.3
0.2
0.1
0
TV violence
and
aggression
Videogame
violence and
aggression
TV and
fear of
victimization
Prosocial TV
and
altruism
Prosocial TV
and social
interaction
Prosocial TV
and tolerance
for others
Sources: For TV violence and aggression (.31), see Haejung Paik and George Comstock, “The Effects of Television Violence on
Antisocial Behavior: A Meta-Analysis,” Communication Research 21, no. 4 (1994): 516–46. For videogame violence and aggression
(.25), see Craig Anderson, “An Update on the Effects of Playing Violent Video Games,” Journal of Adolescence 27 (2004): 113–22. For
TV and fear of victimization (.10), see Michael Morgan and James Shanahan, “Two Decades of Cultivation Research: An Appraisal and
Meta-analysis,” Communication Yearbook (1996): 1–45. For prosocial TV and altruism (.37), prosocial TV and social interaction (.24),
and prosocial TV and tolerance of others, see Marie-Louise Mares and Emory Woodard, “Positive Effects of Television on Children’s
Social Interactions: A Meta-Analysis,” Media Psychology 7, no. 3 (2005): 301–22.
did not, however, measure individual children’s exposure to the program, so it could be
that other factors contributed to this negative
effect. The study illustrates how challenging
it can be to alter stereotypes, even among
young children.
Summary of Prosocial Evidence
To sum up all of this research, Marie-Louise
Mares and Emory Woodard conducted a
meta-analysis in 2005.117 Their analysis of
thirty-four studies of the prosocial effects
of television involving more than 5,000
children found an overall effect of .27 (a
medium size effect), indicating that viewing
prosocial programming does in fact enhance
children’s prosocial behavior. The strongest
effects of prosocial content were on altruism (.37); the effects on positive interaction
(.24) and on tolerance for others (.20) were
slightly weaker. This finding is consistent
with the idea that it is easier for television
characters to demonstrate behaviorally how
to help someone than how to be cooperative
or tolerant of others. In general, effects were
also stronger when the television content
mirrored the behavior that children were
to imitate afterward. Finally, the effect of
prosocial content varied by children’s age
and socioeconomic status, but not by gender.
Effects increased sharply between the ages of
three and seven and then declined until age
sixteen. That effects peak at age seven is consistent with the notion that prosocial lessons
may be difficult for very young children to
understand, especially lessons conveyed with
words instead of action. Prosocial television
had a greater effect on children from middleto upper-class families than on children from
lower-class families. The authors speculated
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Barbara J. Wilson
that the relatively happy world depicted in
most prosocial programming might resonate best with children from more affluent
backgrounds.
Media Choices and Children’s
Well-Being
American children spend a large part of their
lives with television and other screen-based
technologies, and there can be little doubt
that they learn from these mediated experiences. Parents and educators often worry
about the harmful effects of media, but the
evidence is clear that time spent with media
can also be beneficial for children. The point
I have emphasized throughout this article is
that content matters. Watching two hours of
Sesame Street will provide a young child with
a rich set of academic and social-emotional
lessons; watching two hours of a superhero
cartoon will recommend aggression as a way
of solving problems.
Figure 1 charts the effect that exposure to
different types of media content has on
various social and emotional outcomes, based
on the meta-analyses already noted. The
good news is that prosocial television has a
larger effect on altruism than any other
content has on any other outcome. Close
behind, however, is the effect that violent
television has on aggressive behavior. Slightly
smaller effects have been found for violent
video games on aggressive behavior, for
prosocial content on positive social interaction, and for prosocial content on teaching
tolerance for others. The smaller effect for
video game violence should be interpreted
with caution, however, because studies in
this area are few, and most involve adults.
Some of the more recent research comparing
television with video games suggests that the
violent games may be a more potent stimulator of aggression. The smallest effect of all is
10 8
T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
that of television in cultivating a fear of
victimization. One reason for the latter
finding may be that research on cultivation
has tended to ignore content and instead
simply measured hours of television viewing.
As noted, cultivation effects tend to be
stronger among heavy viewers of news
programming and other authentic portrayals
of violence such as those sometimes found in
reality shows.
The important conclusion to draw is that all
the effects displayed in figure 1 are positive,
statistically significant, and established across
large numbers of participants and settings.
One way to interpret these effects is to treat
them like correlations that can be used to
estimate how much variance is explained in a
given behavior or outcome. For example, television violence accounts for about 10 percent
(.312) of the variance in children’s aggression.
Although that share does not seem large,
it is larger than any other single factor that
accounts for violent behavior in youth. The
truth is that, taken separately, most risk factors do not account for much of the variance
in children’s aggression. Being male accounts
for about 3.6 percent of the variance, poverty
accounts for about 1 percent, and abusive
parenting accounts for about 0.8 percent.118
The only factor that comes close to media
violence is gang membership (9.6 percent).
Thus, reducing children’s exposure to media
messages that condone violence in our culture
could reduce a small but crucial portion of
youth aggression in society.
Risk Factors for Media Effects
on Youth
The modest effect sizes charted in figure 1
suggest that other variables interact with or
modify the media’s influence. As I have noted
along the way, one such variable is the age or
developmental level of the child. Television
Media and Children’s Aggression, Fear, and Altruism
violence seems to have the strongest impact
on preschool children, in part because they
are still learning social norms and inhibitions against behaving aggressively. Prosocial
effects of watching television are strongest
for slightly older children, peaking at about
age seven or eight. Prosocial lessons are
often conveyed more subtly in the media and
therefore require more advanced cognitive
skills to decipher. The influence of media
on fear and anxiety is common throughout
childhood, although the types of content
that upset children differ with age. Younger
children are frightened more by fantasy portrayals; older elementary school children and
preteens, more by realistic content, including
the news.
Another important variable is a child’s perception of how real the media are. Children
differ in the degree to which they believe
that what they see on the screen is realistic.119
When media storylines seem realistic, children are likely to pay closer attention to what
they are watching and presumably exert more
cognitive effort in processing the information. Shows perceived as being real may also
encourage children to imagine themselves in
the characters’ place. And indeed, television
violence has a heightened effect on children
who perceive television as realistic.120 On
the other hand, children who are able to
discount television as unrealistic will have a
less intense fear reaction to a scary television
portrayal.121
Another variable in children’s susceptibility to
the media is the extent to which they identify
with characters and real people featured on
the screen. Children begin developing attachments to favorite media characters during
the preschool years.122 Fondness for media
characters can last throughout childhood and
adolescence. In one survey nearly 40 percent
of teens named a media figure as their role
model—nearly the same share that named
a parent or relative.123 Consistent with social
cognitive theory, children are more likely to
learn from those they perceive as attractive
role models. Strongly identifying with violent
characters, for example, makes children more
likely to learn aggression from the media.124
Identifying with victims of tragedy also
enhances children’s fear responses to
news stories.125
Parental Influence on Children’s
Media Experiences
Parents, it turns out, can play an important
and positive role in how electronic media
affect young people’s lives: they can not only
enhance the benefits but also reduce the risks
associated with children’s media exposure.
Parents who watch prosocial programming
with their child and reinforce the messages in
different portrayals can enhance their child’s
prosocial learning.126 Such active mediation can include explaining and discussing
the moral lessons in a plot, reinforcing the
information through rehearsal, and engaging
in role-playing activities that elaborate on the
information.
By helping children think critically about
potentially harmful content in the media,
parents can also reduce the impact of media
violence.127 In one experiment, elementary school children who were encouraged
to think about the victim while watching
a violent cartoon liked the aggressor less,
liked the victim more, and believed that the
violence was less justified than did children
who received no such guidance.128 Moreover,
boys who were given such guidance were
less aggressive after viewing the cartoon than
were boys who received no such help; girls
were less aggressive overall so the mediation
had no impact on their behavior.
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Barbara J. Wilson
Parents can also teach children coping strategies to deal with frightening images in the
media. Discussing the special effects used in
a horror film or explaining that fantasy events
on the screen cannot happen in real life are
both effective techniques to reduce children’s
fright reactions.129 Such “cognitive” strategies
work especially well with older elementary
school children who can comprehend such
information and store it in memory for later
use.130 For younger children, “noncognitive”
strategies such as providing physical comfort
and turning off the program seem most effective.131 Parents should consider shielding children, especially preschoolers, from the types
of fictional themes that are most frightening
at different points in development.
When it is the news that is frightening to children, parents’ role is more challenging. Older
children can be taught to recognize that news
programming overemphasizes crime and violence and that many terrible events covered
11 0
T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
in the news, such as child kidnapping, occur
only infrequently in the real world.132 Permitting children under the age of eight to see
graphic images in the news, even inadvertently when the TV is on in the background,
may present challenges because such content
is hard to explain to younger age groups. In
the case of major catastrophes, research suggests that all children benefit from curtailed
television exposure and constructive conversations with a calm parent.133
In general, it is essential for parents to monitor the media content their children view and
find attractive. Such parental involvement
is arguably more important than establishing rules about how much time children can
spend watching TV or playing video games.
Guiding children’s media choices and helping
children become critical consumers of media
content can foster the prosocial benefits of
spending time in front of a screen while preventing some of the risks.
Media and Children’s Aggression, Fear, and Altruism
Endnotes
1. Victoria Rideout and Elizabeth Hamel, The Media Family: Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants,
Toddlers, Preschoolers, and Their Parents (Palo Alto, Calif.: Kaiser Family Foundation, 2006).
2. Amy Halberstaadt, Susanne Denham, and Julie Dunsmore, “Affective Social Competence,” Social
Development 79 (2001): 79–119.
3. Aimee Dorr, “Television and Affective Development and Functioning,” in Television and Behavior: Ten
Years of Scientific Progress and Implications for the Eighties, edited by David Pearl, Lorraine Bouthilet,
and Joyce Lazar (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1982), pp. 199–220; Norma Deitch
Feshbach and Seymour Feshbach, “Affective Processes and Academic Achievement,” Child Development
58, no. 5 (1987): 1335–47.
4. Francine Deutsch, “Observational and Sociometric Measures of Peer Popularity and Their Relationship of
Egocentric Communication in Female Preschoolers,” Developmental Psychology 10, no. 5 (1974): 745–47;
Barbara Wilson and Joanne Cantor, “Developmental Differences in Empathy with a Television Protagonist’s Fear,” Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 39, no. 2 (1985): 284–99.
5. Donald Hayes and Dina Casey, “Young Children and Television: The Retention of Emotional Reactions,”
Child Development 63, no. 6 (1992): 1423–36.
6. Aletha Huston and others, “Perceived Television Reality and Children’s Emotional and Cognitive
Responses to Its Social Content,” Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 16 (1995): 231–51.
7. Ann Knowles and Mary Nixon, “Children’s Comprehension of a Television Cartoon’s Emotional Theme,”
Australian Journal of Psychology 42, no. 2 (1990): 115–21.
8. Huston and others, “Perceived Television Reality” (see note 6).
9. Gerry Ann Bogatz and Samuel Ball, The Second Year of Sesame Street: A Continuing Evaluation
(Princeton, N.J.: Educational Testing Service, 1971).
10. Sandra Calvert and Jennifer Kotler, “Lessons from Children’s Television: The Impact of the Children’s
Television Act on Children’s Learning,” Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 24 (2003): 275–335.
11. Audrey Weiss and Barbara Wilson, “Emotional Portrayals in Family Television Series That Are Popular
among Children,” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 40 (1996): 1–29.
12. Judith List, Andrew Collins, and Sally Westby, “Comprehension and Inferences from Traditional and
Nontraditional Sex-Role Portrayals on Television,” Child Development 54, no. 2 (1983): 1579–87.
13. Susan Fiske and Shelley Taylor, eds., Social Cognition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996).
14. Jennifer Jenkins and Keith Oatley, “The Development of Emotion Schemas in Children: Processes That
Underlie Psychopathology,” in Emotion in Psychopathology: Theory and Research, edited by William
Flack and James Laird (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 45–56.
15. Jeanne Meadowcroft and Byron Reeves, “Influence of Story Schema Development on Children’s Attention
to Television,” Communication Research 16, no. 3 (1989): 352–74.
16. John Wright and Aletha Huston, “Occupational Portrayals on Television: Children’s Role Schemata, Career
Aspirations, and Perceptions of Reality,” Child Development 66, no. 6 (1995): 1706–18.
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Barbara J. Wilson
17. Leanne Findlay, Alberta Girardi, and Robert Coplan, “Links between Empathy, Social Behavior, and
Social Understanding in Early Childhood,” Early Childhood Research Quarterly 21 (2006): 347–59.
18. Carolyn Saarni and others, “Emotional Development: Action, Communication, and Understanding,” in
Handbook of Child Psychology, vol. 3: Social, Emotional, and Personality Development (New York: Wiley,
2006).
19. Grace Martin and Russell Clark, “Distress Crying in Neonates: Species and Peer Specificity,” Developmental Psychology 18 (1982): 3–9.
20. Wilson and Cantor, “Developmental Differences in Empathy” (see note 4).
21. Lawrence Kurdek, “Structural Components and Intellectual Correlates of Cognitive Perspective Taking
in First- through Fourth-Grade Children,” Child Development 48 (1977): 1503–11; Michael Chandler and
Stephen Greenspan, “Ersatz Egocentrism: A Reply to H. Burke,” Developmental Psychology 7 (1972):
104–06.
22. Norma Feshbach and Kiki Roe, “Empathy in Six- and Seven-Year-Olds,” Child Development 39, no.1
(1968): 133–45.
23. Huston and others, “Perceived Television Reality” (see note 6).
24. Raymond Mar and others, “Bookworms versus Nerds: Exposure to Fiction versus Non-fiction, Divergent
Associations with Social Ability, and the Simulation of Fictional Social Worlds,” Journal of Research in
Personality 40 (2006): 694–712.
25. Joanne Cantor, “The Media and Children’s Fears, Anxieties, and Perceptions of Danger,” in Handbook
of Children and the Media, edited by Dorothy Singer and Jerome Singer (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage
Publications, 2002), pp. 207–21.
26. Ibid.
27. Douglas Gentile and David Walsh, “A Normative Study of Family Media Habits,” Applied Developmental
Psychology 25 (2002): 157–78.
28. Mark Singer and others, “Viewing Preferences, Symptoms of Psychological Trauma, and Violent Behaviors
among Children Who Watch Television,” Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent
Psychiatry 37, no. 10 (1998): 1041–48.
29. Judith Owens and others, “Television-viewing Habits and Sleep Disturbance in School Children,” Pediatrics
104 (1999) [www.pediatrics.org/cgi/content/full/104/3/e27].
30. Kristen Harrison and Joanne Cantor, “Tales from the Screen: Enduring Fright Reactions to Scary Media,”
Media Psychology 1, no. 2 (1999): 97–116.
31. Cantor, “The Media and Children’s Fears” (see note 25).
32. Rachel Melkman, Barbara Tversky, and Daphna Baratz, “Developmental Trends in the Use of Perceptual
and Conceptual Attributes in Grouping, Clustering, and Retrieval,” Journal of Experimental Child
Psychology 31, no. 3 (1981): 470–86.
33. Cantor, “The Media and Children’s Fears” (see note 25).
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Media and Children’s Aggression, Fear, and Altruism
34. Ibid.
35. John Wright and others, “Young Children’s Perceptions of Television Reality: Determinants and Developmental Differences,” Developmental Psychology 30, no. 2 (1994): 229–39.
36. Joanne Cantor and Amy Nathanson, “Children’s Fright Reactions to Television News,” Journal of Communication 46 (1996): 139–52; Stacy Smith and Barbara Wilson, “Children’s Comprehension of and Fear
Reactions to Television News,” Media Psychology 4, no. 1 (2002): 1–26.
37. Stacy Smith, Katherine Pieper, and Emily Moyer-Guse, “News, Reality Shows, & Children’s Fears: Examining Content Patterns, Theories, and Negative Effects,” in Blackwell Handbook of Child Development and
the Media, edited by Sandra Calvert and Barbara Wilson (New York: Blackwell Publishing, forthcoming).
38. Betty Pfefferbaum and others, “Post-traumatic Stress Two Years after the Oklahoma City Bombing in
Youths Geographically Distant from the Explosion,” Psychiatry 63, no. 4 (2000): 358–70.
39. Mark Schuster and others, “A National Survey of Stress Reactions after the September 11, 2001, Terrorist
Attacks,” New England Journal of Medicine 345, no. 20 (2001): 1507–12.
40. William Schlenger and others, “Psychological Reactions to Terrorist Attacks: Findings from the National
Study of Americans’ Reactions to September 11,” Journal of the American Medical Association 288, no. 5
(2002): 581–88.
41. Michael Otto and others, “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms Following Media Exposure to Tragic
Events: Impact of 9/11 on Children at Risk for Anxiety Disorders,” Journal of Anxiety Disorders 21, no. 7
(2007): 888–902.
42. Conway Saylor and others, “Media Exposure to September 11: Elementary School Students’ Experiences
and Posttraumatic Symptoms,” American Behavioral Scientist 46, no. 2 (2003): 1622–42.
43. Smith and Wilson, “Children’s Comprehension of and Fear Reactions to Television News” (see note 36).
44. Ibid.
45. Cantor and Nathanson, “Children’s Fright Reactions to Television News” (see note 36); Smith and Wilson,
“Children’s Comprehension of and Fear Reactions to Television News” (see note 36).
46. Ibid.
47. Eugenia Peck, “Gender Differences in Film-Induced Fear as a Function of Type of Emotion Measure
and Stimulus Content: A Meta-analysis and a Laboratory Study,” Dissertation Abstracts International
Section A: Humanities and Social Sciences 61(1-A), (2000): 17.
48. Jeffrey Johnson and others, “Association between Television Viewing and Sleep Problems during Adolescence and Early Adulthood,” Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 158 (2004): 562–68.
49. George Gerbner and others, “Growing Up with Television: Cultivation Processes,” in Media Effects:
Advances in Theory and Research, edited by Jennings Bryant and Dolf Zillmann (Mahwah, N.J.:
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002).
50. Stacy Smith and others, “Violence in Television Programming Overall: University of California, Santa
Barbara Study,” in National Television Violence Study, vol. 3 (Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage Publications,
1998), pp. 5–220; Barbara Wilson and others, “Violence in Television Programming Overall: University
VOL. 18 / NO. 1 / S PR ING 2008
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Barbara J. Wilson
of California, Santa Barbara Study,” in National Television Violence Study, vol. 1 (Thousand Oaks, Calif.:
Sage Publications, 1997), pp. 3–268.
51. Barbara Wilson and others, “Violence in Children’s Television Programming: Assessing the Risks,” Journal
of Communication 52, no. 1 (2002): 5–35.
52. Nancy Signorielli, “Television’s Mean and Dangerous World: A Continuation of the Cultural Indicators
Perspective,” Cultivation Analysis: New Directions in Media Effects Research, edited by Nancy Signorielli
and Michael Morgan (Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1990): pp. 85–106.
53. Jennings Bryant, Rodney Carveth, and Dan Brown, “Television Viewing and Anxiety: An Experimental
Examination,” Journal of Communication 31 (1981): 106–19.
54. Jacob Cohen, Statistical Power Analysis for the Behavioral Sciences, Second Edition (Hillsdale, N.J.:
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1988).
55. Michael Morgan and James Shanahan, “Two Decades of Cultivation Research: An Appraisal and MetaAnalysis,” Communication Yearbook 20 (1996): 1–45.
56. Daniel Romer, Kathleen Jamieson, and Sean Aday, “Television News and the Cultivation of Fear and
Crime,” Journal of Communication 53, no. 1 (2003): 88–104.
57. Smith and Wilson, “Children’s Comprehension of and Fear Reactions to Television News” (see note 36).
58. Barbara Wilson, Nicole Martins, and Amy Marske, “Children’s and Parents’ Fright Reactions to Kidnapping
Stories in the News,” Communication Monographs 72, no. 1 (2005): 46–70.
59. Ibid.
60. David Finkelhor and Richard Ormrod, “Kidnapping of Juveniles: Patterns from NIBRS” (Washington
D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, 2000).
61. Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Kidnapping of Juveniles” (www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/ibrs.htm [March 5, 2003]).
62. CBS News Polls, “Poll: America’s Cultural Divide” (www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/11/22/opinion/polls/
main657068.shtml [March 15, 2007]).
63. Elliot Turiel, “The Development of Morality,” in Handbook of Child Psychology, vol. 3: Social, Emotional,
and Personality Development, edited by Nancy Eisenberg, William Damon, and Richard Lerner (New
York: Wiley, 2006), pp. 789–857.
64. Marina Krcmar and Patti Valkenberg, “A Scale to Assess Children’s Moral Interpretations of Justified
and Unjustified Violence and Its Relationship to Television Viewing,” Communication Research 26, no. 5
(1999): 608–34.
65. Wilson and others, “Violence in Television Programming Overall” (see note 50).
66. Marina Krcmar and Edward Vieira, “Imitating Life, Imitating Television: The Effects of Family and
Television Models on Children’s Moral Reasoning,” Communication Research 32, no. 3 (2005): 267–94.
67. Wilson and others, “Violence in Television Programming Overall” (see note 50).
68. Marina Krcmar and Stephen Curtis, “Mental Models: Understanding the Impact of Fantasy Violence on
Children’s Moral Reasoning,” Journal of Communication 53, no. 3 (2003): 460–78.
11 4
T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
Media and Children’s Aggression, Fear, and Altruism
69. Judy Dunn and Claire Hughes, “‘I Got Some Swords and You’re Dead’: Violent Fantasy, Antisocial Behavior,
Friendship, and Moral Sensibility in Young Children,” Child Development 72 (2001): 491–505.
70. Pew Research Center, New Concerns about Internet and Reality Shows: Support for Tougher Indecency
Measures, but Worries about Government Intrusiveness (Washington. D.C., April 2005).
71. Smith and others, “Violence in Television Programming Overall: University of California, Santa Barbara
Study” (see note 50); Wilson and others, “Violence in Television Programming Overall” (see note 50).
72. Wilson and others, “Violence in Television Programming Overall” (see note 50).
73. Fumie Yokota and Kimberly Thompson, “Violence in G-Rated Animated Films,” Journal of the American
Medical Association 283 (2000): 2716–20.
74. Kimberly Thompson and Kevin Haninger, “Violence in E-Rated Video Games,” Journal of the American
Medical Association 286 (2001): 591–98.
75. Albert Bandura, Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory (Englewood Cliffs,
N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1986).
76. Rachel Barr and others, “The Effect of Repetition on Imitation from Television during Infancy,” Developmental Psychobiology 49, no. 2 (2007): 196–207.
77. Albert Bandura, Sheila Ross, and Dorthea Ross, “Vicarious Reinforcement and Imitative Learning,”
Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 67, no. 6 (1963): 601–07.
78. Albert Bandura, “Influence of Model’s Reinforcement Contingencies on the Acquisition of Imitative
Responses,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 36 (1965): 589–95.
79. Bandura, Social Foundations of Thought and Action (see note 75).
80. L. Rowell Huesmann, “Psychological Processes Promoting the Relation between Exposure to Media
Violence and Aggressive Behavior by the Viewer,” Journal of Social Issues 42 (1986): 125–39.
81. Craig Anderson and others, “The Influence of Media Violence on Youth,” Psychological Science in the
Public Interest 4 (2003): 81–110.
82. Congressional Public Health Summit, “Joint Statement on the Impact of Entertainment Violence on
Children,” July 26, 2000 (www.aap.org/advocacy/releases/jstmtevc.htm [July 31, 2007]).
83. Chris Boyatzis, Gina Matillo, and Kristen Nesbitt, “Effects of ‘The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers’ on
Children’s Aggression with Peers,” Child Study Journal 25, no. 1 (1995): 45–55.
84. Albert Bandura, Dorthea Ross, and Sheila Ross, “Imitation of Film-Mediated Aggressive Models,” Journal
of Abnormal and Social Psychology 66, no. 1 (1963): 3–11; David Hicks, “Imitation and the Retention
of Film-Mediated Aggressive Peer and Adult Models,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2
(1965): 97–100.
85. L. Rowell Huesmann and others, “Longitudinal Relations between Children’s Exposure to TV Violence
and Their Aggressive and Violent Behavior in Young Adulthood: 1977–1992,” Developmental Psychology
39, no. 2 (2003): 201–21.
86. Haejung Paik and George Comstock, “The Effects of Television Violence on Antisocial Behavior: A MetaAnalysis,” Communication Research 21, no. 4 (1994): 516–46.
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87. Brad Bushman and Craig Anderson, “Media Violence and the American Public: Scientific Facts versus
Media Misinformation,” American Psychologist 56 (2001): 477–89.
88. J. Cooper and Diane Mackie, “Video Games and Aggression in Children,” Journal of Applied Social
Psychology 16 (1986): 726–44; Daniel Graybill and others, “Effects of Playing Versus Observing Violent
Versus Nonviolent Video Games on Children’s Aggression,” Psychology: A Quarterly Journal of Human
Behavior 24 (1987): 1–8.
89. Steven Kirsch, “Seeing the World through Mortal Kombat-Colored Glasses: Violent Video Games and the
Development of a Short-Term Hostile Attribution Bias,” Childhood 5 (1998): 177–84.
90. Craig Anderson, Douglas Gentile, and Katherine Buckley, Violent Video Game Effects on Children and
Adolescents (Oxford University Press, 2007).
91. Ibid.
92. Craig Anderson, “An Update on the Effects of Playing Violent Video Games,” Journal of Adolescence 27
(2004): 113–22.
93. William Kronenberger and others, “Media Violence Exposure in Aggressive and Control Adolescents:
Differences in Self- and Parent-Report Exposure to Violence on Television and in Video Games,”
Aggressive Behavior 31, no. 3 (2005): 201–16.
94. Ibid.
95. John Archer and Sarah Coyne, “An Integrated Review of Indirect, Relational, and Social Aggression,”
Personality and Social Psychology Review 9, no. 3 (2005): 212–30.
96. Sarah Coyne and John Archer, “Indirect Aggression in the Media: A Content Analysis of British Television
Programs,” Aggressive Behavior 30 (2004): 254–71.
97. Sarah Coyne, John Archer, and Mike Eslea, “Cruel Intentions on Television and in Real Life: Can Viewing
Indirect Aggression Increase Viewers’ Subsequent Indirect Aggression?” Journal of Experimental Child
Psychology 88, no. 3 (2004): 234–53.
98. Huesmann and others, “Longitudinal Relations between Children’s Exposure” (see note 85).
99. Nancy Eisenberg, Richard Fabes, and Tracy Spinrad, “Prosocial Development,” in Handbook of Child
Psychology, vol. 3: Social, Emotional, and Personality Development, edited by Nancy Eisenberg, William
Damon, and Richard Lerner (New York: Wiley, 2006), pp. 646–718.
100. Sandi Smith and others, “Altruism on American Television: Examining the Amount of, and Context Surrounding, Acts of Helping and Sharing,” Journal of Communication 4 (2006): 707–27.
101. Wilson and others, “Violence in Television Programming Overall” (see note 50).
102. Lynn Rossellini, “Lords of the Rings,” US News & World Report 126 (1999): 52–59.
103. Joyce Sprafkin, Robert Liebert, and Rita Poulos, “Effect of a Prosocial Televised Example on Children’s
Helping,” Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 20 (1975): 119–26.
104. Lynette Friedrich and Aletha Stein, “Prosocial Television and Young Children: The Effects of Verbal
Labeling and Role Playing on Learning and Behavior,” Child Development 47, no. 1 (1975): 27–38.
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Media and Children’s Aggression, Fear, and Altruism
105. Jerome Singer and Dorothy Singer, “‘Barney & Friends’ as Entertainment Education: Evaluating the Quality and Effectiveness of a Television Series for Preschool Children,” in Research Paradigms, Television, and
Social Behavior, edited by Joy Asamen and Gordon Berry (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1998), pp. 305–67.
106. Maria McKenna and Elizabeth Ossoff, “Age Differences in Children’s Comprehension of a Popular
Television Program,” Child Study Journal 28, no. 1 (1998): 53–68.
107. Marsha Liss, Lauri Reinhardt, and Sandra Fredriksen, “TV Heroes: The Impact of Rhetoric and Deeds,”
Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 4 (1983): 175–87.
108. Gene Brody, Zolinda Stoneman, and Alice Sanders, “Effects of Television Viewing on Family Interactions:
An Observational Study,” Family Relations 29, no. 2 (1980): 216–20.
109. May Martini, “‘What’s New?’ at the Dinner Table: Family Dynamics during Mealtimes in Two Cultural
Groups in Hawaii,” Early Development and Parenting 5 (1996): 23–34.
110. Kelly Schmitt, Daniel Anderson, and Patricia Collins, “Form and Content: Looking at Visual Features of
Television,” Developmental Psychology 35 (1999): 1156–67.
111. Stanley Baran, Lawrence Chase, and John Courtright, “Television Drama as a Facilitator of Prosocial
Behavior: The Waltons,” Journal of Broadcasting 23 (1979): 277–84.
112. L. Theresa Silverman and Joyce Sprafkin, “The Effects of ‘Sesame Street’s’ Prosocial Spots on Cooperative
Play between Young Children,” Journal of Broadcasting 24 (1980): 135–47.
113. Brian Coates, H. Ellison Pusser, and Irene Goodman, “The Influence of ‘Sesame Street’ and ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ on Children’s Social Behavior in the Preschool,” Child Development 47, no. 1 (1976):
138–44.
114. Bradley Greenberg and Dana Mastro, “Children, Race, Ethnicity and Media,” in Blackwell Handbook of
Child Development and the Media, edited by Sandra Calvert and Barbara Wilson (New York: Blackwell
Publishing, forthcoming).
115. Bogatz and Ball, The Second Year of Sesame Street (see note 9).
116. Charlotte Cole and others, “The Educational Impact of Rechov Sumsum/Shara’a Simsim: A Sesame Street
Television Series to Promote Respect and Understanding among Children Living in Israel, the West Bank,
and Gaza,” International Journal of Behavioral Development 25, no. 5 (2003): 409–22.
117. Marie-Louise Mares and Emory Woodard, “Positive Effects of Television on Children’s Social Interactions:
A Meta-Analysis,” Media Psychology 7, no. 3 (2005): 301–22.
118. Anderson, Gentile, and Buckley, Violent Video Game Effects (see note 90).
119. Wright and others, “Young Children’s Perceptions of Television Reality” (see note 35).
120. Huesmann, “Psychological Processes” (see note 80).
121. Barbara Wilson and Audrey Weiss, “The Effects of Two Reality Explanations on Children’s Reactions to a
Frightening Movie Scene,” Communication Monographs 58, no. 2 (1991): 307–26.
122. Barbara Wilson and Kristin Drogos, “Preschoolers’ Attraction to Media Characters,” presented at the
2007 annual meeting of the National Communication Association convention, Chicago.
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123. Antronette Yancey, Judith Siegel, and Kimberly McDaniel, “Role Models, Ethnic Identity, and HealthRisk Behaviors in Urban Adolescents,” Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine 156 (2002): 55–61.
124. Huesmann, “Psychological Processes” (see note 80).
125. Otto and others, “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms” (see note 41).
126. Singer and Singer, “Barney & Friends” (see note 105).
127. Joanne Cantor and Barbara Wilson, “Media and Violence: Intervention Strategies for Reducing Aggression,”
Media Psychology 5, no. 4 (2003): 363–403.
128. Amy Nathanson and Joanne Cantor, “Reducing the Aggression-Promoting Effect of Violent Cartoons by
Increasing Children’s Fictional Involvement with the Victim: A Study of Active Mediation,” Journal of
Broadcasting & Electronic Media 44 (2000): 125–42.
129. Joanne Cantor and Barbara Wilson, “Helping Children Cope with Frightening Media Presentations,”
Current Psychological Research & Reviews 7 (1988): 58–75.
130. Wilson and Weiss, “The Effects of Two Reality Explanations” (see note 121); Joanne Cantor and Barbara
Wilson, “Modifying Fear Responses to Mass Media in Preschool and Elementary School Children,”
Journal of Broadcasting 28 (1984): 431–43.
131. Cantor and Wilson, ”Modifying Fear Responses” (see note 130).
132. Wilson, Martins, and Marske, “Children’s and Parents’ Fright Reactions” (see note 58).
133. Deborah Phillips, Shantay Prince, and Laura Schiebelhut, “Elementary School Children’s Responses
Three Months after the September 11 Terrorist Attacks: A Study in Washington, DC,” American Journal
of Orthopsychiatry 74 (2004): 509–28.
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Online Communication and Adolescent Relationships
Online Communication and Adolescent
Relationships
Kaveri Subrahmanyam and Patricia Greenfield
Summary
Over the past decade, technology has become increasingly important in the lives of adolescents.
As a group, adolescents are heavy users of newer electronic communication forms such as
instant messaging, e-mail, and text messaging, as well as communication-oriented Internet sites
such as blogs, social networking, and sites for sharing photos and videos. Kaveri Subrahmanyam
and Patricia Greenfield examine adolescents’ relationships with friends, romantic partners,
strangers, and their families in the context of their online communication activities.
The authors show that adolescents are using these communication tools primarily to reinforce
existing relationships, both with friends and romantic partners. More and more they are integrating these tools into their “offline” worlds, using, for example, social networking sites to get
more information about new entrants into their offline world.
Subrahmanyam and Greenfield note that adolescents’ online interactions with strangers, while
not as common now as during the early years of the Internet, may have benefits, such as
relieving social anxiety, as well as costs, such as sexual predation. Likewise, the authors demonstrate that online content itself can be both positive and negative. Although teens find valuable
support and information on websites, they can also encounter racism and hate messages.
Electronic communication may also be reinforcing peer communication at the expense of
communication with parents, who may not be knowledgeable enough about their children’s
online activities on sites such as the enormously popular MySpace.
Although the Internet was once hailed as the savior of education, the authors say that schools
today are trying to control the harmful and distracting uses of electronic media while children
are at school. The challenge for schools is to eliminate the negative uses of the Internet and cell
phones in educational settings while preserving their significant contributions to education and
social connection.
www.futureofchildren.org
Kaveri Subrahmanyam is a professor of psychology at California State University–Los Angeles, and associate director of the Children’s
Digital Media Center, UCLA/CSULA. Patricia Greenfield is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of California–Los
Angeles and director of the Children’s Digital Media Center, UCLA/CSULA.
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T
Kaveri Subrahmanyam and Patricia Greenfield
he communication functions of
electronic media are especially
popular among adolescents.
Teens are heavy users of new
communication forms such as
instant messaging, e-mail, and text messaging,
as well as communication-oriented Internet
sites such as blogs, social networking, photo
and video sharing sites such as YouTube,
interactive video games, and virtual reality
environments, such as Second Life. Questions
abound as to how such online communication
affects adolescents’ social development, in
particular their relationship to their peers,
romantic partners, and strangers, as well as
their identity development, a core adolescent
developmental task.
In this article, we first describe how adolescents are using these new forms of electronic
media to communicate and then present a
theoretical framework for analyzing these
uses. We discuss electronic media and relationships, analyzing, in turn, relationships
with friends, romantic partners, strangers,
and parents. We then explore how parents
and schools are responding to adolescents’
interactions with electronic media. Finally,
we examine how adolescents are using
electronic media in the service of identity
construction.
Adolescents have a vast array of electronic
tools for communication—among them,
instant messaging, cell phones, and social
networking sites. These tools are changing
rapidly and are just as rapidly becoming independent of a particular hardware platform.
Research shows that adolescents use these
communication tools primarily to reinforce
existing relationships, both friendships and
romantic relationships, and to check out the
potential of new entrants into their offline
world.1 But while the Internet allows teens to
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T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
nourish existing friendships, it also expands
their social networks to include strangers.
The newly expanded networks can be used
for good (such as relieving social anxiety) or
for ill (such as sexual predation). Although
researchers have conducted no rigorous
experiments into how adolescents’ wide use
of electronic communication may be affecting
their relationships with their parents, indications are that it may be reinforcing peer communication at the expense of communication
with parents. Meanwhile, parents are increasingly hard-pressed to stay aware of exactly
what their children are doing, with newer
forms of electronic communication such
as social networking sites making it harder
for them to control or even influence their
children’s online activities. Schools too are
now, amidst controversy and with difficulty,
trying to control the distracting uses of the
Internet and other media such as cell phones
while children are at school. The challenge
for parents and schools alike is to eliminate
the negative uses of electronic media while
preserving their significant contributions to
education and social connection.
Electronic Media in the Service of
Adolescent Communication
To better understand how adolescents use
electronic media for communication, we
start by describing the many diverse ways in
which such communication can take place.
Among youth today, the popular communication forms include e-mail, instant messaging,
text messaging, chat rooms, bulletin boards,
blogs, social networking utilities such as
MySpace and Facebook, video sharing such
as YouTube, photo sharing such as Flickr,
massively multiplayer online computer games
such as World of Warcraft, and virtual worlds
such as Second Life and Teen Second Life.
Table 1 lists these communication forms, the
Online Communication and Adolescent Relationships
Table 1. Online Communication Form, Electronic Hardware That Supports It, and Function of the
Communication Form
Communication Form
Electronic Hardware That Supports It
Functions Enabled
E-mail
Computers, cell phones,
Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs)
Write, store, send, and receive asynchronous messages electronically; can include attachments of word documents, pictures, audio,
and other multimedia files
Instant messaging
Computers, cell phones, PDAs
Allows the synchronous exchange of private messages with another
user; messages primarily are in text but can include attachments of
word documents, pictures, audio, and other multimedia files
Text messaging
Cell phones, PDAs
Short text messages sent using cell phones and wireless hand-held
devices such as the Sidekick and Personal Digital Assistants
Chat rooms
Computers
Synchronous conversations with more than one user that primarily
involve text; can be either public or private
Bulletin boards
Computers
Online public spaces, typically centered on a topic (such as health,
illnesses, religion), where people can post and read messages;
many require registration, but only screen names are visible (such
as www.collegeconfidential.com)
Blogs
Computers
Websites where entries are typically displayed in reverse chronological order (such as www.livejournal.com); entries can be either public
or private only for users authorized by the blog owner/author
Social networking
utilities
Computers
Online utilities that allow users to create profiles (public or private)
and form a network of friends; allow users to interact with their
friends via public and private means (such as messages, instant
messaging); also allow the posting of user-generated content such
as photos and videos (such as www.myspace.com)
Video sharing
Computers, cell phones,
cameras with wireless
Allows users to upload, view, and share video clips (such as www.
YouTube.com)
Photo sharing
Computers, cell phones,
cameras with wireless
Allows users to upload, view, and share photos (such as www.Flickr.
com); users can allow either public or private access
Massively multiplayer
Computers
online computer games
(MMOG)
Online games that can be played by large numbers of players simultaneously; the most popular type are the massively multiplayer role
playing games (MMORPG) such as World of Warcraft
Virtual worlds
Online simulated 3-D environments inhabited by players who interact
with each other via avatars (such as Teen Second Life)
Computers
electronic hardware that supports them, and
the functions that they make possible.
Although table 1 lists the various forms of
electronic hardware that support the different communication forms, these distinctions
are getting blurred as the technology
advances. For instance, e-mail, which was
originally supported only by the computer,
can now be accessed through cell phones and
other portable devices, such as personal
digital assistants (PDAs), Apple’s iPhone, the
Sidekick, and Helio’s Ocean. The same is true
for functions such as instant messaging and
social networking sites such as MySpace.
Other communication forms such as YouTube
and Flickr are similarly accessible on portable
devices such as cell phones with cameras and
cameras with wireless. Text messaging
continues to be mostly the province of cell
phones although one can use a wired computer to send a text message to a cell phone.
As more phones add instant messaging
service, instant messaging by cell phone is
also growing in popularity.2 Although teens
use many of these types of electronic hardware to access the different online communication forms, most research on teens’ use of
electronic communication has targeted
computers; where available, we will include
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Kaveri Subrahmanyam and Patricia Greenfield
findings based on other technologies, such as
cell phones.
Adolescents are using these different
communication forms for many different purposes and to interact with friends,
acquaintances, and strangers alike. Teens use
instant messaging mainly to communicate
with offline friends.3 Likewise they use social
networking sites to keep in contact with their
peers from their offline lives, both to make
plans with friends whom they see often and
to keep in touch with friends whom they see
rarely.4 They use blogs to share details of
everyday happenings in their life.5
Cell phones and text messaging have also
become an important communication tool
for teens. Virgin Mobile USA reports that
more than nine of ten teens with cell phones
have text messaging capability; two-thirds use
text messaging daily. Indeed, more than half
of Virgin’s customers aged fifteen to twenty
send or receive at least eleven text messages
a day, while nearly a fifth text twenty-one
times a day or more. From October through
December 2006, Verizon Wireless hosted
17.7 billion text messages, more than double
the total from the same period in 2005.
Adolescents use cell phones, text messaging,
and instant messaging to communicate with
existing friends and family.6 Using these tools
to keep in touch with friends is a departure
from the early days of the Internet, when
contact with strangers was more frequent.
But the trend is not surprising given that
youth are more likely to find their friends and
family online or with cell phones today than
they were even five or ten years ago.7
Although teens are increasingly using these
electronic communication forms to contact
friends and family, the digital landscape
continues to be populated with anonymous
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online contexts such as bulletin boards, massively multiplayer online games (MMOG),
massively multiplayer online role playing
games (MMORPG), and chat rooms where
users can look for information, find support,
play games, role play, or simply engage in
conversations. Investigating how technology
use affects adolescent online communication
requires taking into account both the activities and the extent of anonymity afforded by
an online context, as well as the probability of
communicating with strangers compared with
friends in that context.
Privacy measures have given
adolescent users a great deal
of control over who views
their profiles, who views the
content that they upload,
and with whom they interact
on these online forums.
Electronic communication forms also differ
both in the extent to which their content is
public or private and in the extent to which
users can keep content private. Public chat
rooms and bulletin boards are perhaps the
least private. Screen names of users are
publicly available, although users choose
their screen names and also whether their
profile is public or private. Of course, private
conversations between users are not publicly
available, and such private messages are typically restricted to other users who have also
registered. This restriction precludes lurkers
and others not registered with the site from
privately contacting a user. Communication
through e-mail, instant messaging, and text
messaging is ostensibly the most private.
Online Communication and Adolescent Relationships
Although e-mails and transcripts of instant
messaging conversations can be forwarded
to third parties, they still remain among the
more private spaces of the Internet.
For communication forms such as blogs and
social networking utilities, users have complete control over the extent to which their
entries or profiles are public or private. Blog
entries and MySpace profiles, for instance,
can be either freely accessed on the Web by
anyone or restricted to friends of the author.
Recently, MySpace has restricted the ability
of users over age eighteen to become friends
with younger users. Facebook gives users a
variety of privacy options to control the
profile information that others, such as
friends and other people in their network,
can see. For example, users can block
particular people from seeing their profile or
can allow specific people to see only their
limited profile. Searches on the Facebook
network or on search engines reveal only a
user’s name, the networks they belong to, and
their profile picture thumbnail. Facebook
used to be somewhat “exclusive,” in that
members had to have an “.edu” suffix on their
e-mail address; the idea was to limit the site
to college and university students. That
requirement, however, has recently changed,
making Facebook less “private” and more
public. Most photo sharing sites allow users
to control who views the pictures that they
upload; pictures can be uploaded for public
or private storage and users can control who
views pictures marked private. YouTube, a
very public communication forum, allows
registered users to upload videos and
unregistered users to view most videos; only
registered viewers can post comments and
subscribe to video feeds.
Finally, although online games and virtual
worlds are public spaces, users must be
registered and often must pay a subscription
fee to access them; users create avatars or
online identities to interact in these worlds
and have the freedom to make them resemble or differ from their physical identities.
Some virtual worlds such as Second Life are
restricted to people older than eighteen;
Teen Second Life is restricted to users
between thirteen and seventeen. Several
controls have been put in place to protect
youth in these online contexts. One such
control for Teen Second Life is the verification of users, which requires a credit card or
Paypal account. Another control is the threat
of losing one’s privileges in the site; for
instance, underage users found in the main
area are transferred to the teen area and
overage users found in the teen area are
banned from both the teen and main areas.
These privacy measures have given adolescent users a great deal of control over who
views their profiles, who views the content
that they upload, and with whom they
interact on these online forums. And young
users appear to be using these controls. A
recent study of approximately 9,000 profiles
on MySpace found that users do not disclose
personal information as widely as many fear:
40 percent of profiles were private. In fact
only 8.8 percent of users revealed their name,
4 percent revealed their instant messaging
screen name, 1 percent included an e-mail
address, and 0.3 percent revealed their
telephone number.8 As dana boyd points out,
however, an intrinsic limitation of privacy in
electronic communication is that words can
be copied or altered and shared with others
who were not the intended audience.9
Further research is needed to learn how this
feature affects social relationships.
Privacy controls on networking sites also
mean that adolescents can restrict parental
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access to their pictures, profiles, and writings.
In fact, on Facebook, even if teens give their
parents access to their profiles, they can limit
the areas of their profile that their parents
can view. We recently conducted a focus
group study that revealed that some teens
may go as far as to have multiple MySpace
profiles, some of which their parents can
access, others of which they cannot, and still
others that they do not know exist. Monitoring and controlling youth access to these
communication forms is growing ever more
challenging, and it is important for parents to
inform themselves about these online forms
so they can have meaningful discussions
about them with their adolescents.
One key question for research is whether
these new online communication forms have
altered traditional patterns of interaction
among adolescents. Is time spent in online
communication coming at the expense of time
spent in face-to-face communication? Or is
time spent online simply substituting for time
that would have been spent on the telephone
in earlier eras? Research has shown that over
the past century adolescence has become
more and more separated from adult life; most
adolescents today spend much of their time
with their peers.10 An equally important
question is whether adolescents’ online
communication is changing the amount and
nature of interactions with families and
relatives. Research has not yet even consistently documented the time spent by adolescents in different online communication
venues. One difficulty in that effort is that the
multitasking nature of most online communication makes it hard for subjects to provide a
realistic estimate of the time they spend on
different activities. Recall errors and biases
can further distort estimates. Researchers have
tried to sidestep this problem by using diary
studies and experience-sampling methods in
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T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
which subjects are beeped at various points
throughout the day to record and study their
activities and moods. But current diary studies
of teen media consumption do not address the
questions of interest here. The rapidly shifting
nature of adolescent online behavior also
complicates time-use studies. For instance, on
the blogging site Xanga, an average user spent
an hour and thirty-nine minutes in October
2002, but only eleven minutes in September
2006. Similarly, recent media reports suggest
that the once-popular Friendster and
MySpace sites have been supplanted by
Facebook among adolescents.11 These shifts in
popularity mean that data on time usage
quickly get outdated; clearly new paradigms
are needed to study these issues.
Theoretical Framework
Our theoretical framework draws on John
Hill’s claim that adolescent behavior is best
understood in terms of the key developmental
tasks of adolescence—identity, autonomy,
intimacy, and sexuality—and the factors, such
as pubertal and cognitive changes, and the
variables, such as gender and social class, that
influence them.12 Extending his ideas, we
propose that for today’s youth, media technologies are an important social variable and
that physical and virtual worlds are psychologically connected; consequently, the virtual
world serves as a playing ground for developmental issues from the physical world, such as
identity and sexuality.13 Thus understanding
how online communication affects adolescents’ relationships requires us to examine
how technology shapes two important tasks of
adolescence—establishing interpersonal
connections and constructing identity.
Electronic Media and
Relationships
Establishing interpersonal connections—
both those with peers, such as friendships
Online Communication and Adolescent Relationships
and romantic relationships, and those with
parents, siblings, and other adults outside
the family—is one of the most important
developmental tasks of adolescence.14 As
electronic media technologies have become
important means of communicating with
others, it is important to consider them in the
context of the interpersonal relationships in
adolescents’ lives. Two themes have framed
discussions of adolescent online communication and relationships. One is concern about
the nature and quality of online and offline
relationships. The other is how online communication affects adolescents’ relationships
and well-being and whether the effects are
positive or negative. We next address these
issues. Although research on adolescence
has historically not considered relationships
with strangers, we include that relationship
here, as the Internet has opened up a world
beyond one’s physical setting.
Electronic Media and Relationships
with Friends
We first examine the role of electronic media
in youth’s existing friendships. One study of
detailed daily reports of home Internet use
found that adolescents used instant messaging
and e-mail for much of their online interactions; they communicated mostly with friends
from offline lives about everyday issues such
as friends and gossip.15 Another study found
that teens use instant messaging in particular as a substitute for face-to-face talk with
friends from their physical lives.16 According
to this study, conducted in 2001–02, teens
feel less psychologically close to their instant
messaging partners than to their partners in
phone and face-to-face interactions. Teens
also find instant messaging less enjoyable
than, but as supportive as, phone or face-toface interactions. They find instant messaging
especially useful to talk freely to members of
the opposite gender. The authors of the study
speculate that teens have so wholly embraced
instant messaging despite its perceived
limitations because it satisfies two important
developmental needs of adolescence—
connecting with peers and enhancing their
group identity by enabling them to join
offline cliques or crowds without their more
formal rules.
Although social networking sites are also
used in the context of offline friendships,
this is true mostly for girls. The 2006 Pew
survey study on social networking sites and
teens found that girls use such sites to reinforce pre-existing friendships whereas boys
use them to flirt and make new friends.17
Text messaging on cell phones has recently
become popular among U.S. teens; they are
now following youth in the United Kingdom,
Europe, and Asia who have widely adopted
it and enmeshed it in their lives. Adolescents
exchange most of their text messages with
their peers.18 To study the communicative
purposes of text messaging, one study asked
ten adolescents (five boys and five girls) to
keep a detailed log of the text messages that
they sent and received for seven consecutive
days. Analysis of the message logs revealed
three primary conversation threads: chatting (discussing activities and events, gossip,
and homework help), planning (coordinating
meeting arrangements), and coordinating
communication (having conversations about
having conversations). The teens ended most
text conversations by switching to another
setting such as phone, instant messaging, or
face-to-face.19
Effects of electronic communication on
friendships. How does adolescents’ electronic
communication with their friends affect
their friendship networks and, in turn, their
well-being? According to a 2001 survey by
the Pew Internet and American Life Project,
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Kaveri Subrahmanyam and Patricia Greenfield
48 percent of online teens believe that the
Internet has improved their relationships
with friends; the more frequently they use
the Internet, the more strongly they voice
this belief. Interestingly, 61 percent feel that
time online does not take away from time
spent with friends.20
One recent study appears to support adolescents’ self-reported beliefs about how the
Internet affects their friendships. A survey
study of preadolescent and adolescent youth
in the Netherlands examined the link
between online communication and relationship strength.21 Eighty percent of those
surveyed reported using the Internet to
maintain existing friendship networks.
Participants who communicated more often
on the Internet felt closer to existing friends
than those who did not, but only if they were
using the Internet to communicate with
friends rather than strangers. Participants
who felt that online communication was more
effective for self-disclosure also reported
feeling closer to their offline friends than
adolescents who did not view online communication as allowing for more intimate selfdisclosure.
Whereas survey participants who used instant
messaging communicated primarily with
existing, offline friends, those who visited
chat rooms communicated with existing
friends less often. This pattern makes sense
because chat is generally a public venue
providing wide access to strangers and little
access to friends, whereas instant messaging is primarily a private medium. But the
research leaves unanswered the question of
whether chat decreases communication with
existing friends or whether teens with weaker
friendship networks use chat more. The
authors completed their survey before social
networking sites had become popular in the
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T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
Netherlands; only 8 percent of their respondents used the most popular Dutch social
networking site. The study did not assess the
relationship between the use of social networking sites and existing friendships.
Researchers have uncovered some evidence
that the feedback that teens receive in social
networking may be related to their feelings
about themselves. A recent survey of 881
Dutch adolescents assessed how using a
friend networking site (CU2) affected their
self-esteem and well-being.22 The study’s
authors concluded that feedback from the site
influenced self-esteem, with positive feedback
enhancing it and negative tone decreasing it.
Although most adolescents (78 percent)
reported receiving positive feedback always or
predominantly, a small minority (7 percent)
reported receiving negative feedback always
or predominantly. The study, however, was
based entirely on participants’ self-assessments as to the kind of feedback they
received; there was no independent assessment of whether it was positive or negative. It
is impossible to tell whether negative feedback per se reduced self-esteem or whether
participants with lower self-esteem typically
perceived the feedback they received as more
negative, which in turn caused a further dip in
their self-esteem. Nor did the analysis take
into account whether friends or strangers
provided the feedback.
Even when adolescents are communicating
with their friends, social networking sites
such as MySpace may by their very nature be
transforming their peer relations. These sites
make communication with friends public and
visible. Through potentially infinite electronic
lists of friends and “friends of friends,” they
bring the meaning of choosing one’s social
relationships to a new extreme. They have
thus become an essential part of adolescent
Online Communication and Adolescent Relationships
peer social life while leading to a redefinition
of the word “friend.” A recent focus group
study of MySpace on a college campus found
that most participants had between 150
and 300 “friends” on their MySpace site.23
Friends’ photos and names are displayed on
users’ profiles, and each profile includes a list
of “top” friends, ranging from a “top four”
to a “top twenty-four.” Such public display
of best friends seems a potentially transformative characteristic of a social networking
site. But how does making (and not making)
someone’s “top” friends list affect adolescent
relationships and self-esteem? This is an
important question for future research in the
area of adolescent peer relations.
Initial qualitative evidence
is that the ease of electronic
communication may be
making teens less interested
in face-to-face communication
with their friends.
Other technologies clearly form barriers
against all face-to-face communication. Walking through an unfamiliar university campus
recently, one of us had difficulty getting the
attention of students hooked up to iPods to
get directions to a particular building. Initial
qualitative evidence is that the ease of electronic communication may be making teens
less interested in face-to-face communication
with their friends.24 More research is needed
to see how widespread this phenomenon is
and what it does to the emotional quality of
a relationship.
Electronic media and bullying. The news
media are increasingly reporting that
adolescents are using electronic technologies
such as cell phones, text messages, instant
messages, and e-mail to bully and victimize
their peers. In a 2005 survey conducted in the
United Kingdom, 20 percent of the 770
respondents, aged eleven to nineteen,
reported being bullied or receiving a threat
via e-mail, Internet, chat room, or text, and 11
percent reported sending a bullying or
threatening message to someone else. Text
bullying was most commonly reported, with
14 percent reporting being bullied by mobile
text messaging. Bullying in Internet chat
rooms and through e-mails was reported by 5
percent and 4 percent of the sample, respectively. A new form of harassment appears to
be emerging through cell phone cameras: 10
percent reported feeling embarrassed,
uncomfortable, or threatened by a picture
that someone took of them with a cell phone
camera. The majority of the respondents
reported knowing the person who bullied or
threatened them.25
Similar trends have been found in the United
States. The second Youth Internet Safety Survey (YISS-2) conducted in 2005 found that
9 percent of young Internet users reported
being harassed online in the previous year.
Harassment included being bothered online
as well as having someone post or send messages about them to others. Both girls and
boys were targets, although girls were more
likely to receive distressing harassment.
Instant messaging elicited the most reports of
harassment (47 percent), followed by e-mails
(13 percent), chat rooms (11 percent), and
blogs (3 percent).26
A large-scale online survey conducted at
a popular teen Internet site in 2005 found
a much higher rate of harassment—72
percent—using two different methods of
estimating prevalence for the previous year.27
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Kaveri Subrahmanyam and Patricia Greenfield
The online recruitment probably yielded
relatively heavy Internet users for whom the
risk of cyberbullying would be greater. The
online anonymity of the questionnaire may
also have fostered greater honesty. The discrepancy, however, is so large that it warrants
further investigation.
Research on cyberbullying has tried to create
profiles both of youth who are likely to
perpetrate harassment and of those who are
likely to be the victims of harassment.
Cyberbullies are more likely to report poor
parent-child relationships, substance use, and
delinquency.28 Youth (aged ten to seventeen)
with symptoms of depression are more likely
to report being harassed. Among boys, those
reporting major depression were three times
more likely to be harassed than those reporting mild to no depression.29 As with other
correlational studies, it is impossible to know
the direction of causality. The authors suggest
that “future studies should focus on establishing the temporality of events, that is, whether
young people report depressive symptoms in
response to the negative Internet experience,
or whether symptomatology confers risks for
later negative online incidents.”
Cyberbullying illustrates how traditional
offline adolescent issues are moving to the
electronic stage. A questionnaire study of
eighty-four thirteen- to eighteen-year-old
teens found that text messages were the most
common form of electronic bullying. Most
important, the findings suggest that students’
role as victim and perpetrator of bullying
in the offline world predicted their role in
electronic bullying. Although a subset of
traditional bullies were victims in the virtual
world, there was no indication that victims of
bullying in the real world retaliated by becoming bullies on the Internet or in text messages.
Nor was there any indication that bullying
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T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
began electronically and was thence transferred to the real world.30 This general pattern
was confirmed by the large-scale Internetbased survey in 2005 mentioned earlier,
which included more than 1,400 respondents
between twelve and seventeen years of age.31
The study found that respondents who had
experienced repeated school-based bullying
were seven times more likely to be subjected
to repeated online bullying. Heavy use of the
Internet also increased the risk, as did the use
of particular Internet tools, specifically, instant
messaging and webcams. These latter factors,
however, were much less powerful than was
school-based bullying. The study found that
instant messaging was the most common tool
for bullying, whereas the U.K. study noted
earlier found that text messaging (which is
more popular in the United Kingdom) was
the most common. Clearly the particular tool
is a function of its availability and cannot be
considered a causal factor. Another finding is
that Internet bullies include both unknown
others and acquaintances. About two-thirds of
the cyberbully victims knew the perpetrator;
one-third did not.
Electronic Media and Relationships
with Romantic Partners
Given that adolescents are using electronic
media to interact with peers, it is important
to see how they use them in the area of
romantic relationships. Finding a romantic
partner and establishing a romantic relationship are important adolescent developmental
tasks. Related to these tasks are adolescents’
developing sexuality and their construction of
their sexual selves.
Adolescents appear to use electronic media
to reinforce existing romantic relationships,
just as they do friendships. According to a
recent online survey by Teenage Research
Unlimited, nearly a quarter of teens in a
Online Communication and Adolescent Relationships
romantic relationship have communicated
with a boyfriend or girlfriend hourly between
midnight and 5 a.m. using a cell phone or
texting. One in six communicated ten or
more times an hour through the night. Concern about sleep deprivation has been one
response to these data.32
Online communication forms that allow for
anonymity offer adolescents a new avenue
to practice partner selection. Using a sample
of 12,000 utterances from adolescent chat
rooms, researchers have found that the
search for partners was ubiquitous online,
with approximately two partner requests
each minute.33 In almost one-third of cases, a
participant asked interested parties, often of
the opposite sex, to provide a string of numbers (for example, Ladies If Ya Sexy Press
11 or press 234567 if you want to chat) that
stood out visually to indicate a desire to chat.
Participants who declared they were older
searched more actively for a partner and were
also more likely to specify the gender of the
partner they were seeking. Also participants
who stated that they were females were more
likely to make partner requests. The gender
difference indicates that the online environment provides a safe space for females to
initiate romantic relationships. While pairing
up with a romantic partner has always been
a central task of adolescent development,
this study shows how teens address this
need more freely and frequently in a virtual
communication environment than has been
heretofore possible in the “real” world.
Research also suggests that anonymous online
contexts provide a forum for sexual exploration, another major task of adolescence. Of
the 12,000 utterances in the chat study just
noted, 5 percent were sexual ones (about one
sexual remark a minute).34 Participants who
self-presented as older were more likely than
younger ones to make explicit sexual utterances. Gender was also related to modes of
sexual expression: utterances by users with
masculine screen names were more sexually
explicit; those by feminine screen names, more
sexually implicit. Adolescents also use online
bulletin boards to learn about sexuality.35
Finally, they use the Internet to engage in
cybersex. In one study of 692 Czech secondary
school students, 16 percent of twelve- to
twenty-year-olds reported having tried virtual
sex. A significant number reported having
their first sexual experience online.36 The
study also found that 43 percent of the boys
and 8 percent of the girls admitted to viewing
pornographic materials. Although adolescents’
exposure to online sexual content can be
either intentional or unsolicited, more
research is necessary to assess how this early
exposure may affect sexual identity and
intimacy during emerging adulthood.37
Studies have found that inadvertent exposure
to sexual media in childhood and adolescence
often has negative emotional effects, such as
shock, disgust, or embarrassment, and that
these effects can be enduring.38 Online
forums may also provide sexual minority
adolescents with a safe haven for sexual
exploration without the prejudice and harassment that gay, lesbian, and bisexual adolescents sometimes face at the hands of peers
and adults.39
Much less is known about adolescents’ use
of electronic communication for romantic
relationship formation. The 2001 Pew survey
on teenagers and instant messaging reported
that among teens who used instant messaging, 17 percent used it to ask someone out
and 13 percent, to break up with someone.40
One recent study of romantic relationships
among college students explored the use of
Facebook, a social networking site, among
1,440 first-year students at Michigan State
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Kaveri Subrahmanyam and Patricia Greenfield
University.41 According to the study, the
lowest-ranked use was finding casual sex
partners; the next-lowest was finding people
to date. The students may, however, have
been using Facebook to check out people
they had met as prospective dates. Uses such
as checking out people they have met socially
or in class or others who live in their dorm
are all ranked relatively highly. Another study
of relationship formation asked a sample of
Facebook users about an instance when they
had met someone socially and then reviewed
his or her profile. Compared with light users,
heavier users of Facebook reported feeling
more confident in the information they had
gleaned from the profile. They also reported
being more attracted and feeling more similar
to the profile they reviewed.42 One way in
which online communication may affect
romantic relationships may be subtle: getting
more information about people one has met
to screen potential dates. This possible function is worth pursuing in future research.
Relationships with Strangers and
Acquaintances
Because online interactions lack important
features of face-to-face communication, such
as gestures and eye contact, they are believed
to be less rich than offline ones. When the
communication is with strangers or individuals
not part of one’s offline life, it is believed to
represent weak ties, which have been characterized as relationships that have superficial
and easily broken bonds, infrequent contact,
and narrow focus.43 Questions about the
relative richness of online communication
have raised concerns about the extent of
adolescents’ online interactions with strangers
and about the social impact of such weaker
interactions and relationships.
Trends in relationships with strangers. The
potential for online stranger contact varies
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T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
depending both on the particular technology
used and the time period under consideration.
In the earlier years of the Internet, when chat
rooms were the rage, teens were more likely
to be in contact with strangers; once instant
messaging became popular, teens seemed
to be using it to connect mostly with offline
friends.44 With the advent of today’s popular
social networking sites, video and photo sharing sites, and blogs, adolescents may again
connect and interact with people who are not
a part of their offline lives.
Communication frequency
and self-disclosure play a
role in computer-mediated
communication and the
formation of online friendships just as they do in
face-to-face interactions
and offline friendships.
An earlier national survey of adolescents aged
ten to seventeen published in 2002 revealed
that in the year before they were surveyed,
25 percent of Internet users had formed
casual online friendships and 14 percent had
formed close friendships or even romantic
relationships.45 A national survey conducted
in 2006 found that 40 percent of fourteen- to
twenty-two-year-olds who use social networking sites such as MySpace had been contacted
online by a stranger whom they did not know
before.46 Yet another survey, conducted in
2007, reported that an overwhelming majority of teens who use social networking sites do
so to keep in touch either with friends whom
they see frequently (91 percent) or with
friends they see rarely (82 percent).47 These
Online Communication and Adolescent Relationships
shifting trends suggest that although adolescents may be using online communication
forms as a way of extending their interaction
with peers from their offline lives, the potential for interactions with strangers is high and
therefore merits further exploration.
Quality of online relationships with strangers.
The scant research on the topic suggests that
adolescents’ relationships with strangers that
begin online may indeed differ from their
offline ones. One study of 987 Israeli adolescents found that teens knew such online
friends for a shorter period of time than they
knew face-to-face friends and that the
relationships were not as close: the topics
discussed were less personal and shared
activities were fewer.48 It is possible, however,
that online relationships may become more
similar to offline ones over time. Another
study, whose participants ranged in age from
sixteen to twenty-nine (median age was
20.67), found that offline relationships were
higher in quality initially but not when both
types of relationships lasted more than a
year.49 Participants in this study, Hong Kong
Internet users who were recruited from an
online newsgroup, were asked about the
quality of one offline and one online relationship of similar duration. Duration of relationships was likely important because the longer
a relationship, the more opportunities for
information exchange and greater self-disclosure. Self-disclosure appears to be important
for relationship quality in computer-mediated
communication. In fact, a study with college
students found that participants who selfdisclosed more in such communication also
reported higher relationship quality.50
Although it appears that online relationships
with strangers can develop in quality over
time, it is not clear how many last long
enough to become higher-quality relationships offering more intimacy and support.
Do online relationships move offline? Another
question is whether relationships with
strangers that begin online move offline. In
a national survey of 1,501 youth, 256 respondents reported close online relationships and
41 percent of them reported face-to-face
meetings with their online friend.51 It appears
that relationships move from online to offline
only occasionally; however, given that the
newer friendship forms of networking center
on making “friends,” this issue needs further
exploration.
Who forms online relationships with strangers? It is also important to consider the
characteristics of adolescents who are more
likely to interact with strangers and to form
relationships with them. Such interactions
can compromise the safety and well-being of
the adolescent if the strangers are not peers
but, rather, older, unscrupulous adults. Early
research on this question found that more
troubled adolescents were more likely to have
formed close online relationships. Girls who
had high levels of conflict with their parents
and boys who had low levels of communication were more likely to have formed close
relationships.52 Troubled adolescents have
similarly been found to be more likely to visit
chat rooms, where users usually encounter
strangers rather than friends or family.53
Personality variables also seem to play a role
in how youth form relationships with strangers online. In a questionnaire study of 600
Dutch adolescents, both extroverts and introverts reported that they formed online friendships, but they did so for different reasons.54
Extroverts formed online friendships so that
they could self-disclose more and engage in
more frequent online communication. Introverts formed online friendships to compensate for their poorer social skills; the social
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Kaveri Subrahmanyam and Patricia Greenfield
disclosure and frequency of communication
and consequently facilitated online friendship
formation. Again we see that communication
frequency and self-disclosure play a role in
computer-mediated communication and the
formation of online friendships just as they
do in face-to-face interactions and offline
friendships.
With the newer generation of online communication forms and the greater privacy
controls they offer, youth now have the choice
to interact online both with strangers and with
people from their offline lives. Researchers
have compared adolescents who primarily talk
online with strangers and those who talk
online both with strangers and with friends;
they surveyed 412 Dutch adolescents between
twelve and eighteen years of age.55 Only
5 percent talked exclusively with strangers,
43 percent talked exclusively to people they
knew in person, and 10 percent talked as
often to strangers as to people they knew. The
study found that younger adolescents were
especially prone to communicate with
strangers. Participants who communicated
more frequently were less likely to communicate with a stranger, whereas those who
communicated at more length were more
likely to talk with strangers. Adolescents were
also more likely to talk to strangers if they
communicated online to meet people to
assuage boredom and to compensate for their
lack of social skills. Those who communicated
online to maintain relationships were less
likely to talk to strangers.
Benefits of talking to strangers. Online
communication with strangers may offer some
benefits for adolescents. One study using
detailed daily diaries found that adolescents
who reported feeling lonely or socially anxious
on a given day were more likely to communicate that day via instant messaging with people
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T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
whom they did not know well.56 Another study
showed that online interactions with unknown
peers help adolescents recover from the sting
of social rejection. In perhaps the only
experimental study on this topic, a cyberball
task (the computer equivalent of playing
catch) to simulate social inclusion or exclusion
was followed by either an instant message
conversation with an unknown opposite-sex
peer or by solitary computer game play.57
Adolescents who experienced social exclusion
reported greater negative affect (for example,
lower self-esteem, shame, and anger) than
those who were included. Among the participants who were excluded, online communication with an unknown peer facilitated recovery
from negative affect better than solitary
computer game play. The author suggests that
the contact with unknown peers in forums
such as chat rooms and social networking sites
might help adolescents cope with threats to
“belonging” in their offline lives. She goes on
to write that “policies are needed to promote
the creation and maintenance of safe spaces
for youth to interact online.”
Positive content in online stranger interaction.
The Internet is filled with anonymous discussion groups and bulletin boards devoted to
all kinds of topics of interest to youth, from
music groups and bands, television shows,
and fan fiction to sports, health, sexuality, and
even college admissions. Despite the large
number and variety of such online interest
and support groups frequented by youth,
existing research has mostly focused on
adolescents’ interactions with strangers in the
context of health information and support.
One reason why teens might like to get their
health-related information online is the anonymity of such communication. Young people
may feel more comfortable asking strangers
sensitive health-related questions than they
Online Communication and Adolescent Relationships
would asking a parent or physician in person.
Another advantage of online bulletin boards
and discussion groups is their full-time availability. They also make it possible to get information passively (by looking at other people’s
questions and the responses they received)
and to get advice and suggestions from far
more sources than would be possible from
one’s circle of face-to-face friends.58
The interpersonal connections with strangers
made possible by electronic media may be
particularly valuable for youth suffering from
illnesses, such as AIDS, eating disorders,
and self-injurious behavior, about which they
may not feel comfortable talking with their
friends in person. Online bulletin boards and
chat rooms allow youth to form such connections. A study of the personal Web pages of
adolescent cancer patients found that they
often expressed a strong desire to help other
young cancer patients through providing
information, sharing personal experiences,
and giving advice. The guest books found on
most of the Web pages (which are analogous
to electronic bulletin boards) indicated that
the pages were producing cyber communities providing patient-to-patient support for
cancer victims.59
Even generally healthy adolescents may have
embarrassing or difficult questions concerning
health and sexuality. Lalita Suzuki and Jerel
Calzo investigated a popular health support
website that used a peer-generated bulletin
board format to facilitate the discussion of
adolescent health and social issues. Their
analyses of two health bulletin boards —one
on teen issues and one on sexual health
—concluded that bulletin boards were a
valuable forum of personal opinions, actionable suggestions, concrete information, and
emotional support, and that they allowed
teens to candidly discuss sensitive topics,
such as sexuality and interpersonal relations.60
In developing nations where access to health
care is much less available than in countries
such as the United States, Internet communication may be an especially valuable
resource.61
One extensive study of the posts and
responses on self-injury message boards
found that such forums provide emotional
support to youth struggling with extremes of
behavior.62 A study of an electronic support
group for individuals with eating disorders, a
common affliction of adolescents, particularly
females, made a similar finding.63 Although
such online forums may provide support,
they could also be problematic, particularly
for vulnerable adolescents, because they
normalize and thereby encourage such
injurious behavior.64
Negative content in online stranger interaction. Although the anonymous and public
natures of these online forums may provide
benefits to youth, they may also disinhibit
users and lead to negative content in their
online interactions. Racial slurs and comments were much more common, for example, in unmonitored chat rooms frequented by
older adolescents than in the monitored chat
rooms frequented by younger adolescents.65
Moreover, although chat participants frequently use race to identify themselves and
other in-group members, they nonetheless
stay in the chat room with everyone, rather
than self-segregating, as in school lunchrooms. Race and ethnicity were often mentioned in the chat conversations: thirty-seven
out of thirty-eight half-hour transcripts had at
least one reference to race or ethnicity. As the
authors observed, “While most references had
a neutral or positive valence in both monitored and unmonitored chat rooms, chat
participants nonetheless had a 19 percent
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Kaveri Subrahmanyam and Patricia Greenfield
chance of being exposed to negative remarks
about a racial or ethnic group (potentially
their own) in a session of monitored chat and
a 59 percent chance in unmonitored chat.”66
These findings suggest that racist attitudes are
lurking under the surface and, in the absence
of social controls, such as a monitor, may be
overtly expressed in online venues. But the
monitor is a relatively weak social control:
even a frequency of one in five Internet
sessions seems an extremely high rate of racist
remarks; it is hard to imagine such a high rate
offline. It is also hard to imagine the extent of
the psychological damage that such remarks
do. These findings were validated by a study
that interviewed adolescents recruited by
instant messaging from a teen chat room.
Participants reported exposure to negative
stereotypes and racial prejudice against their
own and other ethnic groups online.67
The most dramatic instances of young people
engaging in racist behavior online occur on
hate sites targeted to children and teens.68
Websites, chat rooms, multi-user domains,
discussion boards, music, audio- and videotapes, games, and literature are some of the
most common tools used to disseminate
online hate. Hate groups reach out to young
people online by a number of means, including the creation of Web pages specifically
geared to children and teens. Ideas may be
worded to be more understandable to young
people. The sites may even feature messages
by youth directed to other youth.
Online stranger contact and sexual solicitation. Online contact with strangers also puts
adolescents at risk for sexual solicitation and
sexual exploitation by predators, though such
risks were far higher in the earlier days of the
Internet before the widespread recognition
of the potential dangers inherent to online
stranger contact. Most online communication
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T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
forms today have privacy controls that, if
used, can greatly reduce the risks for sexual
victimization. Indeed, a recent study has
found that over a five-year period, reports
of unwanted sexual solicitation and harassment have declined, a trend that the authors
speculate is a result of better education and
more effective law enforcement.69 The second Youth Internet Safety Survey (YISS-2),
conducted in 2005, also found that only 4
percent of respondents had experienced
aggressive sexual solicitations.70
Concern is growing that
adolescents’ extensive use of
electronic communication to
interact with their peers may
impair their relations with
their parents, siblings, and
other family members.
Again, despite these small numbers, it is
important to understand which youth may be
at risk for such victimization. The YISS-2
survey showed that youth who engaged in a
pattern of risky online behaviors in their
interactions with strangers were more at risk
for unwanted sexual solicitation or harassment. These behaviors included aggressive
behavior in the form of rude or nasty comments, embarrassing others, meeting people
in multiple ways (for example, on an online
dating site or when instant messaging), and
talking about sex with strangers.71 Youth who
are victims of unwanted sexual solicitation
also report emotional distress, depressive
symptoms, and offline victimization.72
Because the Internet allows individuals to
misrepresent their identity, even less is
Online Communication and Adolescent Relationships
known about the characteristics of online
predators.73 Thus there continues to be a
need for more current data on the extent of
sexual solicitation in the newer communication forms such as social networking sites
where adolescents are more likely to interact
with strangers.
monitoring their various electronic gadgets.
Parents had a hard time penetrating their
children’s world and often retreated. Electronic multitasking has become pervasive,
sometimes at the expense of face-to-face
family interaction, among siblings as well as
with parents.
Electronic Media and Family Relations
Two major questions on the topic of electronic media and family relations warrant
further study. First, to what extent do youth
use electronic media to communicate with
their parents, siblings, and other family
members? Second, how has adolescents’ use
of electronic communication affected their
relations with their parents and other family
members? Numerous media reports, as well
as anecdotal observation, suggest that more
and more parents are turning to text messaging and instant messaging to communicate
with their adolescents; text messaging in particular can be very useful to parents trying to
keep tabs on their teen. There is as yet little
systematic research on the question.
Larry Rosen points out that the advent of
social networking sites such as MySpace has
made most research findings on how Internet
use affects social relations obsolete.75 In one
study Rosen found that nearly one in three
parents felt that the time their teen spent on
MySpace interfered with family life. For parents of teens who spent more than two hours
a day on MySpace, the share rose to one-half.
A study by Gustavo Mesch found that family
time was not affected when adolescents used
the computer for educational purposes; only
when they used it for social purposes was
family interaction negatively affected.76 Rosen
and his colleagues also found that teens who
spent a great deal of time on MySpace felt
that they were getting less support from
their parents. This last finding, especially,
makes clear how important it is to do further
research establishing the direction or directions of causality.77
Concern is growing that adolescents’ extensive use of electronic communication to interact with their peers may impair their relations
with their parents, siblings, and other family
members. There is some evidence that electronic media may enhance peer relations at
the expense of family, especially parent-child
relations. An intense four-year video study
of thirty dual-earner families with children
provides a glimpse of the role of technology
in modern family life.74 When the working
spouse, usually the father, came through the
door at the end of the day, the other spouse
and children were often so absorbed in what
they were doing that they greeted him only
about one-third of the time, usually with a
perfunctory “hi.” About half the time, children
ignored him and continued multitasking and
The role of cell phones in adolescent life and
family relations is also worthy of attention. A
series of focus groups with teenagers, young
adults, and parents in Norway found that
teens used the cell phone to establish generational boundaries (for example, screening
calls from parents into voice mail) and also
that cell phone use undermined family rituals,
such as mealtimes and vacations.78 Perhaps
the most powerful way in which the mobile
telephone undermined family interaction in
favor of peer communication was through
the individualization of communication.79
When peers called one another through a
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Kaveri Subrahmanyam and Patricia Greenfield
mobile telephone, they knew that they could
talk directly with their friends, without any
filtering or monitoring from parents or others
in the household. In the words of the authors
of the study, “Adolescents control the people
with whom they talk and have more room into
which they can share thoughts and messages
that might not be [socially] acceptable. This
plays on the peer group’s ethos that their
inner communications be shielded from nonmembers, and particularly parents.” One of
the authors found further qualitative evidence
of such undermining in a focus group in
which one participant told about a girl whose
boyfriend had secretly given her a cell phone
so she could stay in touch with him against
her parents’ wishes.
Qualitative evidence is
starting to accumulate that
social networking sites such
as MySpace are causing
serious parent-child conflicts
and loss of parental control.
Research has not systematically examined
how technology has changed parent-child
relations. At the moment, researchers are
limited to pointing to new phenomena in the
use of technology that impinge on parentchild communication without yet being able
to understand their developmental and psychological significance.
Have Social Relationships Been Altered
by Electronic Media?
To assess rigorously whether technology has
altered a relationship, researchers must be
able to compare the relationship before and
after a technology is introduced. For many
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T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
kinds of important electronic communications media, it is too late to do such studies
in technologically advanced environments.
The best design for assessing how technology
affects relationships would probably be a
historical one, in which social patterns were
documented before the advent of the technology; there are undoubtedly parts of the
world in which this is still possible, but the
United States is not one of them.
Our analysis, however, has also shown that the
characteristics of electronic communication
intrinsically change social relations. We may
never know the changes in absolute frequency
of face-to-face and voice-to-voice communication that various types of electronic communication have brought about. But we do know
that teens now conduct a higher proportion
of their communication through writing in
an electronic medium rather than face-toface or voice-to-voice—in effect, relatively
depersonalizing the process of interpersonal
communication. It is also clear that electronic
communication expands adolescent social
networks. For example, for a teen to have
150–300 “friends” would have been unheard
of before social networking. It is also evident that electronic communication brings
together—for both good and ill—commoninterest groups whose uniting characteristic,
such as adolescent cancer or self-mutilation,
may be rare in anyone’s group of friends or
family. The quasi-experimental monitoring
studies in teen chat have also indicated that
the anonymity of the Internet produces a
disinhibiting effect on both sexual and racist behavior. The daughter of an L.A. Times
reporter told her mother that MySpace had
become necessary for her social life.80 If that
feeling is widely shared among teens, it would
represent a major change in the processes
by which peer relationships are constructed.
When the processes are so different, it would
Online Communication and Adolescent Relationships
be astonishing if the products were not different too. But this remains for future research.
Electronic Media and
Parental Influence
In this section we examine parents’ role in
their adolescents’ use of electronic media to
communicate with friends and strangers. To
start, what do parents know about the various
communication forms and their teens’ use of
them? Although hard data on this question
are limited, both adolescents and their parents agree that youth know more about the
Internet than their parents do. In the 2001
Pew Report, 64 percent of teens believed
that they knew more than their parents about
communicating online and 66 percent of
their parents agreed. Since that report was
issued, the press has reported extensively
about the potential dangers of interacting on
the Internet, and we suspect parents today
are better informed about electronic communication, but they are probably still not as
knowledgeable as their teens.
Similarly little research exists about what
parents know about their own teens’ use of
electronic media for communication, including whom they talk to and what information
they have on their profiles. One recent survey
of parent and teen pairs suggested that the
parents were largely in the dark about their
teens’ MySpace behaviors. Nearly half the
parents almost never looked at their teens’
MySpace profile and a third had never seen
it.81 On a similar note, a large-scale Internetbased survey of teens revealed that 90 percent
of the sample did not tell an adult, including
parents, about cyberbullying.82 This silence of
course makes it impossible for parents to take
action against cyberbullying.
Parents can influence their adolescents’ use
of electronic communication forms in two
ways: by monitoring and by limiting access.
Monitoring is probably best done by using
Internet software that monitors, filters, and
blocks access to different kinds of content.
Again, no research documents either the
extent of parental use of such software or its
effectiveness. Limiting access would involve
restrictions on where teens go online, the
time they spend online, the electronic forms
they use (for example, MySpace), and how
they use those forms (for example, keeping
blogs private, not posting provocative
pictures).
One study of parent and teen pairs has
revealed that almost half the parents allow
their teens to access the Internet in their
bedrooms; only a third put limits on MySpace
use and a quarter put limits on computer
use. Interestingly, parent and teen perceptions about limits did not coincide: fewer
teens than parents thought that their parents
set limits on their use. Parenting styles were
related to their teen’s MySpace use. Not only
were authoritative parents (parents who are
warm, consistently apply standards, and are
willing to reason with their children) more
likely to have seen their teen’s MySpace
page, they were also more likely to have set
limits on MySpace use and less likely to allow
a computer in the bedroom. Their teens,
along with those with authoritarian parents
(parents who show little warmth, have high
standards, and expect strict obedience), were
least likely to give out personal information
on MySpace.83
Qualitative evidence is starting to accumulate
that social networking sites such as MySpace
are causing serious parent-child conflicts and
loss of parental control.84 Rosen’s interviews
with parents revealed several typical problems.
For example, a boy who failed to do his
homework before midnight because he was
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Kaveri Subrahmanyam and Patricia Greenfield
on MySpace reacted to his parents’ efforts to
curtail his use of MySpace by sneaking back
online. And a girl posted information about
her sweet sixteen party on MySpace, leading
so many teens to crash the party and cause so
many problems that her father had to call
the police.85
Overall it appears that despite their concerns
about their teen’s online activities, parents
may not know much about them and may not
be effective at setting limits and monitoring
their activities. More research is needed to
determine whether the problem is parents’
lack of knowledge about these communication forms or their lack of parenting skills.
It would be interesting to find out whether
parents are similarly uninformed about their
teens’ offline activities, particularly their
offline social interactions.
Parent-child conflict about adolescents’
media use is another topic needing further
research. What is the extent of such conflict?
Are these conflicts similar to conflicts in other
areas such as sex, alcohol, and curfews? Are
they similar to or different from conflicts of
earlier generations? Although evidence is
starting to accumulate that social networking
is causing parent-child conflict and perceived
loss of parental control, no research has been
done on how to reduce the conflict and
restore parental influence. In this void,
Rosen’s analysis of parenting research in
other situations, as well as his list of Internet
sites offering advice to parents on this topic,
can be of value to parents seeking guidance.86
Most important, we urge researchers to fill
this void both with rigorous studies about
whether social networking impairs parentchild relations and with intervention studies
designed to restore a healthy balance
between peer and family interaction.
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Electronic Media and Schools
How have schools responded to the increasing presence of electronic media in the
lives of today’s youth? News reports suggest
that some schools and school districts have
responded by blocking the use of electronic
media in schools, in particular text messaging,
cell phones, iPods, and video games. Many
school computer systems also block access to
websites popular among teens such as those
that provide access to instant messaging,
e-mail, blogs, and social networking utilities.
School authorities argue that these media are
distracting, isolating, and disruptive and that
they facilitate cheating (as when cell phone
cameras are used to copy exams) and other
illegal activity (as when cell phones and pagers
are used in drug and gang activity).
But what are the effects of such bans? A
questionnaire study of middle and high
school teachers and support and administrative staff investigated Internet filtering and
restricted Internet access for junior high
schools and high schools in an entire school
system.87 Most felt that the limits unduly
restricted Internet access. Out of 120 respondents, 117 felt that legitimate sites had been
blocked. Some school personnel felt that
students were not always punished for downloading offensive material. Others admitted
that they themselves used techniques to get
around the filter or block to complete their
tasks. Many respondents felt that the “filtering” system hampered their performance
of their duties, created an inconvenience,
reduced student autonomy, lowered morale,
and made it less likely that they would create
lessons that would integrate technology.
The ban against cell phones in high schools
is perhaps the most controversial restriction.
Parents and youth alike favor cell phones
as invaluable tools for everyday planning
Online Communication and Adolescent Relationships
and coordinating that can be critical in the
event of emergency. But in a case brought by
parents, the New York State Supreme Justice
ruled in favor of New York City’s ban on cell
phones in the schools. Partial or complete
cell phone bans have now been put in place
in Toronto, Los Angeles, Detroit, and Milwaukee.88 It remains unclear how effective
such bans are in preventing the behaviors
they are designed to target. Researchers need
a better understanding of what teachers and
school administrators know about adolescent use of electronic media and how such
technologies might be integrated in school
settings.
Electronic Communication and
Identity Development
According to Erik Erikson, the German
developmental psychologist, establishing a
coherent identity is the fundamental psychosocial task of adolescence.89 Adolescents must
establish a clear sense of who they are, what
they believe in, and where they are headed.
Early on, some observers saw the Internet,
with its potential for anonymity and disembodied interaction, as a perfect venue for such
identity exploration and experimentation.90
Online, it was thought, people could be
whoever they chose to be and could slip in and
out of various identities. But over time
concerns were raised that such identity play
may hinder, not help, adolescent development.
In fact, the evidence is mixed as to whether
adolescents engage in extensive pretense and
identity play online. In one study of twelve- to
fifteen-year-olds, of the 175 participants who
responded to questions about online pretense,
49 percent had never pretended to “not be
yourself,” and 41 percent reported pretending a couple of times.91 Seven participants
reported pretending often and two reported
that they pretended all the time. Most
common was pretending to be older, and was
often done in the company of a friend and
as a joke. Only 2 percent reported that they
pretended to explore a new self or identity.
By contrast, in a study of Dutch adolescents,
246 out of a total of 600 participants reported
having experimented online with their identity at least sometimes.92 Pretending to be
someone older was most commonly reported,
especially among girls. The most common
motives for identity experiments were selfexploration (to observe others’ reaction),
social compensation (to make up for shyness),
and social facilitation (to form relationships).
The study does not make it possible to assess
exactly what share of the sample pretended
often to be someone else. Taken together,
the findings of both studies suggest that
although youth do pretend to be someone
else online, they do not do so frequently, and
when they do, they may simply pretend to
be older. Given that many online sites have
age restrictions, it is quite possible that such
pretense is not a true form of identity exploration but more a way to sidestep age-related
restrictions. Although youth do not seem to
be using electronic media to experiment with
different roles and identities in the manner
envisioned by Erikson, nonetheless these
media afford them opportunities to explore
as well as to practice self-disclosure and
self-presentation, which are both important
steps toward constructing a coherent identity.
Anonymous forums such as chat rooms, in
particular, enable such exploration and selfpresentation.
Conclusions
Society’s traditional adolescent issues—
intimacy, sexuality, and identity—have all
been transferred to and transformed by the
electronic stage. Among the hallmarks of the
transformation are greater teen autonomy,
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Kaveri Subrahmanyam and Patricia Greenfield
the decline of face-to-face communication,
enhancement of peer group relations at the
possible expense of family relations, and
greater teen choice. Given the connectedness between the physical and virtual worlds,
the challenge is to keep adolescents safe
(both physically and psychologically) while at
the same time allowing for the explorations
and interactions that are crucial for healthy
psychosocial development. This conflict is
nicely illustrated by instant messaging, which
helps teens stay in touch with friends, but
is also widely used for electronic bullying.93
Meeting strangers on social networking sites
such as MySpace offers another example.
Although such virtual contacts can endanger adolescents, research has found that
interactions with strangers may also help
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alleviate the negative effects of social rejection in the physical world. The benefits of
exploring identity and intimacy online must
also be weighed against the harmful effects
of viewing sexual content and being bullied online. One challenge for research is
to understand how to enhance the benefits
offered by electronic media while mitigating some of the dangers that they present.
Another challenge is to design research that
examines how online communication affects
real-world communication and relationships.
The thrust of the research at present suggests
that real-world relationships and adolescent
issues influence adolescents’ electronic communication at least as much as electronic
communication influences their real-world
relationships and developmental outcomes.
Online Communication and Adolescent Relationships
Endnotes
1. Cliff Lampe, Nicole Ellison, and Charles Steinfeld, “A Face(book) in the Crowd: Social Searching vs. Social
Browsing,” Proceedings of the 2006 20th Anniversary Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative
Work (New York: ACM Press, 2006), pp. 167–70.
2. Stephanie Dunnewind, “R U Still Up? Teens Are Text-Messaging Friends into the Wee Hours,” Seattle
Times, Living section, March 31, 2007 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/living/2003644903_
textsleep31.html [accessed August 9, 2007]).
3. Elisheva F. Gross, “Adolescent Internet Use: What We Expect, What Teens Report,” Journal of Applied
Developmental Psychology 25, no. 6 (2004): 633–49.
4. Amanda Lenhart and Mary Madden, “Social Networking Websites and Teens: An Overview” (Washington,
D.C.: Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2007) (www.pewinternet.org/pdfs/PIP_SNS_Data_
Memo_Jan_2007.pdf [accessed August 9, 2007]).
5. Kaveri Subrahmanyam and others, In Their Words: Connecting Online Weblogs to Developmental Processes,
California State University–Los Angeles, November 2007.
6. Dunnewind, “R U Still Up?” (see note 2).
7. Janis Wolak, Kimberly J. Mitchell, and David Finkelhor, “Escaping or Connecting? Characteristics of
Youth Who Form Close Online Relationships,” Journal of Adolescence 26, no. 1 (2003): 105–19.
8. Sameer Hinduja and Justin W. Patchin, “Personal Information of Adolescents on the Internet. A Quantitative Content Analysis of MySpace,” Journal of Adolescence, forthcoming.
9. dana boyd, “Social Network Sites: Public, Private, or What?” Knowledge Tree 13 (http://kt. flexiblelearning.
net.au/tkt2007/?page_id=28 [June 26, 2007]).
10. Laurence Steinberg, Adolescence (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005).
11. Washington Post, “In Teens’ Web World, MySpace Is So Last Year,” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/
wp-dyn/content/article/2006/10/28/AR2006102800803.html [August 9, 2007]).
12. John Hill, “Early Adolescence: A Framework,” Journal of Early Adolescence 3, no.1 (1983): 1–21.
13. Kaveri Subrahmanyam, Patricia M. Greenfield, and Brendesha Tynes, “Constructing Sexuality and Identity
in an Online Teen Chatroom,” Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 25, no. 6 (2004): 651–66.
14. Steinberg, Adolescence (see note 10).
15. Gross, “Adolescent Internet Use” (see note 3).
16. Bonka S. Boneva and others, “Teenage Communication in the Instant Messaging Era,” in Information
Technology at Home, edited by Robert E. Kraut and others (Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 612–72.
17. Lenhart and Madden, “Social Networking Websites and Teens” (see note 4).
18. Rebecca E. Grinter and Margery A Eldridge, “y do tngrs luv 2 txt msg?” Proceedings of Seventh European
Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work ECSCW ’01 (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer
Academic Publishers, 2001), pp. 219–38.
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Kaveri Subrahmanyam and Patricia Greenfield
19. Rebecca E. Grinter and Margery A Eldridge, “Wan2tlk?: Everyday Text Messaging,” Proceedings of
the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (New York: ACM Press, 2003),
pp. 441–48.
20. Amanda Lenhart, Lee Rainie, and Oliver Lewis, “Teenage Life Online: The Rise of the Instant-Message
Generation and the Internet’s Impact on Friendships and Family Relationships” (Washington, D.C.: Pew
Internet and American Life Project, 2001) (http://www.pewinternet.org/pdfs/PIP_Teens_Report.pdf/
[August 9, 2007]).
21. Patti Valkenburg and Jochen Peter, “Preadolescents’ and Adolescents’ Online Communication and Their
Closeness to Friends,” Developmental Psychology 43, no. 2 (2007): 267–77.
22. Patti Valkenburg, Jochen Peter, and Alexander Schouten, “Friend Networking Sites and Their Relationship to Adolescents’ Well-Being and Social Self-Esteem,” CyberPsychology & Behavior 9, no. 5 (2006):
584–90.
23. Adriana A. Manago and others, “Self-Presentation and Gender Differences on the MySpace Network,”
Department of Psychology, UCLA, 2007.
24. Larry Rosen, Me, MySpace, and I: Parenting the Net Generation (New York: Palgrave, Macmillan,
forthcoming).
25. NCH, “Putting U in the Picture: Mobile Bullying Survey 2005” (http://www.nch.org.uk/uploads/documents/
Mobile_bullying_%20report.pdf [August 9, 2007]).
26. Janis Wolak, Kimberly J. Mitchell, and David Finkelhor, “Online Victimization of Youth: Five Years Later,”
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children Bulletin (2006) (http://www.unh.edu/ccrc/pdf/CV138.
pdf [August 9, 2007]).
27. Jaana Juvonen and Elisheva F. Gross, “Extending the School Grounds? Bullying Experiences in Cyberspace,” University of California–Los Angeles, 2007.
28. Michelle L. Ybarra and Kimberly J. Mitchell, “Youth Engaging in Online Harassment: Associations with
Caregiver-Child Relationships, Internet Use, and Personal Characteristics,” Journal of Adolescence 27,
no. 3 (2004): 319–36.
29. Michelle L. Ybarra, “Linkages between Youth Depressive Symptomatology and Online Harassment,”
Cyberpsychology and Behavior 7, no. 2 (2004): 247–57.
30. Juliana Raskauskas and Ann D. Stoltz, “Involvement in Traditional and Electronic Bullying among
Adolescents,” Developmental Psychology 43, no. 3 (2007): 564–75.
31. Juvonen and Gross, “Extending the School Grounds?” (see note 27).
32. Dunnewind, “R U Still Up?” (see note 2).
33. David Šmahel and Kaveri Subrahmanyam, “Any Girls Want to Chat Press 911: Partner Selection in Monitored and Unmonitored Teen Chat Rooms,” CyberPsychology and Behavior 10, no. 3 (2007): 346–53.
34. Kaveri Subrahmanyam, David Šmahel, and Patricia M. Greenfield, “Connecting Developmental Processes
to the Internet: Identity Presentation and Sexual Exploration in Online Teen Chatrooms,” Developmental
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Online Communication and Adolescent Relationships
Psychology 42, no. 3 (2006): 395–406.
35. Lalita K. Suzuki and Jerel P. Calzo, “The Search for Peer Advice in Cyberspace: An Examination of Online
Teen Health Bulletin Boards,” Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 25, no. 6 (2004): 685–98.
36. Zbynek Vybíral, David Smahel, and Radana Divínová, “Growing Up in Virtual Reality: Adolescents and
the Internet,” in Society, Reproduction, and Contemporary Challenges, edited by Petr Mares (Brno:
Barrister & Principal, 2004), pp.169–88.
37. Kenzie A. Cameron and others, “Adolescents’ Experience with Sex on the Web: Results from Online
Focus Groups, Journal of Adolescence 28, no. 4 (2004): 535–40.
38. Joanne Cantor and Marie-Louise Mares, “Autobiographical Memories of Exposure to Sexual Media
Content,” Media Psychology 5, no. 1 (2003): 1–31.
39. Stephen T. Russell, Brian T. Franz, and Anne K. Driscoll, “Same-Sex Romantic Attraction and Experiences
of Violence in Adolescence,” American Journal of Public Health 91, no. 6 (2001): 903–06.
40. Lenhart, Rainie, and Lewis, “Teenage Life Online” (see note 20).
41. Lampe, Ellison, and Steinfeld, “A Face(book) in the Crowd: Social Searching vs. Social Browsing” (see
note 1).
42. Stephen P. Andon, “Evaluating Computer-Mediated Communication on the University Campus: The
Impact of Facebook.com on the Development of Romantic Relationships,” Florida State University, 2007.
43. Robert E. Kraut and others, “Internet Paradox: A Social Technology That Reduces Social Involvement
and Psychological Well-Being?” American Psychologist 53, no. 9 (1998): 1017–31.
44. Boneva and others, “Teenage Communication in the Instant Messaging Era” (see note 16).
45. Janis Wolak, Kimberly Mitchell, and David Finkelhor, “Close Online Relationships in a National Sample
of Adolescents,” Adolescence 37, no. 147 (2002): 441–55.
46. Annenberg Public Policy Center, “Stranger Contact in Adolescent Online Social Networks” (Philadelphia:
Annenberg Public Policy Center, University of Pennsylvania, September 2006) (http://www.annenberg
publicpolicycenter.org/Releases/Release_HC20060920/Report_HC20060920.pdf [August 10, 2007]).
47. Lenhart and Madden, “Social Networking Websites” (see note 4).
48. Gustavo Mesch and Ilan Talmud, “The Quality of Online and Offline Relationships, the Role of
Multiplexity and Duration,” Information Society 22, no. 3 (2006): 137–49.
49. Darius K. S. Chan and Grand H. L. Cheng, “A Comparison of Offline and Online Friendship Qualities
at Different Stages of Relationship Development,” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 21, no. 3
(2004): 305–20.
50. Young-Ok Yum and Kazuya Hara, “Computer-Mediated Relationship Development: A Cross-Cultural
Comparison,” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 11, no.1 (2005): 133–52.
51. Wolak, Mitchell, and Finkelhor, “Close Online Relationships” (see note 45).
52. Wolak, Mitchell, and Finkelhor, “Escaping or Connecting” (see note 7).
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Kaveri Subrahmanyam and Patricia Greenfield
53. Timothy J. Beebe and others, “Heightened Vulnerability and Increased Risk-Taking among Adolescent
Chat Room Users: Results from a Statewide School Survey,” Journal of Adolescent Health 35, no. 2 (2004):
116–23.
54. Jochen Peter, Patti M. Valkenburg, and Alexander P. Schouten, “Developing a Model of Adolescent
Friendship Formation on the Internet,” CyberPsychology & Behavior 8, no. 5 (2005): 423–30.
55. Jochen Peter, Patti M. Valkenburg, and Alexander P. Schouten, “Characteristics and Motives of Adolescents
Talking with Strangers on the Internet,” CyberPsychology & Behavior 9, no. 5 (2006): 526–30.
56. Elisheva F. Gross, Jaana Juvonen, and Shelley Gable, “Internet Use and Well-Being in Adolescence,”
Journal of Social Issues 58, no. 1 (2002): 75–90.
57. Elisheva Gross, “Logging on, Bouncing Back: An Experimental Investigation of Online Communication
Following Social Exclusion,” University of California–Los Angeles (2007).
58. Suzuki and Calzo, “The Search for Peer Advice in Cyberspace” (see note 35).
59. Lalita K. Suzuki and Ivan I. Beale, “Personal Home Web Pages of Adolescents with Cancer: SelfPresentation, Information Dissemination, and Interpersonal Connection,” Journal of Oncology Nursing
23, no. 3 (2006): 152–61.
60. Suzuki and Calzo, “The Search for Peer Advice in Cyberspace” (see note 35).
61. Dina L. G. Borzekowski, Julius N. Fobil, and Kofi O. Asante, “Online Access by Accra’s Adolescents:
Ghanaian Teens’ Use of the Internet for Health Information,” Developmental Psychology 42, no. 3 (2006):
450–58.
62. Janis L. Whitlock, Jane L. Powers, and John Eckenrode, “The Virtual Cutting Edge: The Internet and
Adolescent Self-Injury,” Developmental Psychology 42, no. 3 (2006): 407–17.
63. Andrew J. Winzelberg, “The Analysis of an Electronic Support Group for Individuals with Eating
Disorders,” Computers in Human Behavior 13, no. 3 (1997): 393–407.
64. Whitlock, Powers, and Eckenrode, “The Virtual Cutting Edge” (see note 62).
65. Brendesha Tynes, Lindsay Reynolds, and Patricia Greenfield, “Adolescence, Race, and Ethnicity on the
Internet: A Comparison of Discourse in Monitored vs. Unmonitored Chat Rooms,” Journal of Applied
Developmental Psychology 25, no. 6 (2004): 667–84.
66. Ibid, p. 667.
67. Brendesha Tynes, “Role-Taking in Online ‘Classrooms’: What Adolescents Are Learning about Race and
Ethnicity,” Developmental Psychology, forthcoming.
68. Brendesha Tynes, “Children, Adolescents and the Culture of Online Hate,” in Handbook of Children,
Culture and Violence, edited by Nancy E. Dowd, Dorothy G. Singer, and Robin F. Wilson (Thousand
Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 2005), pp. 267–89.
69. Kimberly J. Mitchell, Janis Wolak, and David Finkelhor, “Trends in Youth Reports of Sexual Solicitations,
Harassment and Unwanted Exposure to Pornography on the Internet,” Journal of Adolescent Health 40,
no. 2 (2007): 116–26.
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Online Communication and Adolescent Relationships
70. Wolak, Mitchell, and Finkelhor, “Online Victimization of Youth” (see note 26).
71. Michele L. Ybarra, Kimberly J. Mitchell, and David Finkelhor, “Internet Prevention Messages: Targeting
the Right Online Behaviors,” Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 161, no. 2 (2007): 138–45.
72. David Finkelhor, Kimberly J. Mitchell, and Janis Wolak, “Online Victimization: A Report on the Nations’
Young People” (Alexandria, Va.: National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 2000).
73. Stefan C. Dombrowski and others, “Protecting Children from Online Sexual Predators: Technological,
Psychoeducational, and Legal Considerations,” Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 35, no. 1
(2004): 65–73.
74. Elinor Ochs and others, “Video Ethnography and Ethnoarcheological Tracking,” University of California–
Los Angeles, 2007.
75. Larry Rosen, Me, MySpace, and I (see note 24).
76. Gustavo S. Mesch, “Family Relations and the Internet: Exploring a Family Boundaries Approach,”
Journal of Family Communication 6, no. 2 (2006): 119–38.
77. Larry Rosen, Nancy A. Cheever, and L. Mark Carrier, “The Impact of Parental Attachment Style, Limit
Setting, and Monitoring on Teen MySpace Behavior,” California State University, Dominguez Hills, 2007
(http://www.csudh.edu/psych/The%20Impact%20of%20Parental%20Attachment%20Style%20RosenCheever-Ca.pdf).
78. Rich Ling and Brigitte Yttri, “Control, Emancipation, and Status: The Mobile Telephone in Teens’ Parental
and Peer Relationships,” in Computers, Phones, and the Internet: Domesticating Information Technology,
edited by Robert Kraut, Malcolm Brynin, and Sara Kiesler (Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 219–34.
79. Ibid.
80. Catherine Saillant, “Testing the Bounds of MySpace,” Los Angeles Times, April 8, 2006, p.1 ff.
81. Rosen, Cheever, and Carrier, “The Impact of Parental Attachment Style” (see note 77).
82. Juvonen and Gross, “Extending the School Grounds?” (see note 27).
83. Rosen, Cheever, and Carrier, “The Impact of Parental Attachment Style” (see note 77).
84. Saillant, “Testing the Bounds of MySpace,” (see note 80).
85. Larry Rosen, Me, MySpace, and I (see note 24).
86. Ibid.
87. Deborah G. Simmons, “Internet Filtering: The Effects in a Middle and High School Setting,” Georgia
College and State University (http://info.gcsu.edu/intranet/school_ed/ResearchsofDrSmoothstudents/
Simmons%20Research%20Filter%20Study.pdf [August 3, 2007]).
88. CityNews, “Cellphone Use Banned in all Toronto Public Schools” (www.citynews.ca/news/news_9977.aspx
[August 3, 2007]).
89. Erik Erikson, Identity and the Life Cycle (New York: W. W. Norton, 1959).
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90. Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995).
91. Gross, “Adolescent Internet Use” (see note 3).
92. Patti M. Valkenburg, Alexander Schouten, and Jochen Peter, “Adolescents’ Identity Experiments on the
Internet,” New Media & Society 7, no. 3 (2005): 383–402.
93. Juvonen and Gross, “Extending the School Grounds?” (see note 27).
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Media and Risky Behaviors
Media and Risky Behaviors
Soledad Liliana Escobar-Chaves and Craig A. Anderson
Summary
Liliana Escobar-Chaves and Craig Anderson investigate two important trends among American
youth and examine the extent to which the two trends might be related. First, the authors note
that U.S. youth are spending increasing amounts of time using electronic media, with the
average American youngster now spending one-third of each day with some form of electronic
media. Second, the authors demonstrate that American adolescents are engaging in a number
of unhealthful behaviors that impose huge societal costs.
Escobar-Chaves and Anderson detail the extent of five critical types of adolescent health risk
behaviors identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—obesity, smoking,
drinking, sexual risk taking, and violence. Obesity, the authors note, has become an epidemic
among America’s young people. Cigarette smoking among adolescents is one of the ten leading
health indicators of greatest government concern. Alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence are
widespread problems among the nation’s youth and are the source of the three leading causes
of death among youth. More than 20 percent of American high school students have sexual
intercourse for the first time before they reach the age of fourteen. And twelve- to twenty-yearolds perpetrated 28 percent of the single-offender and 41 percent of multiple-offender violent
crimes in the United States in 2005.
Escobar-Chaves and Anderson present and evaluate research findings on the influence of electronic media on these five risk behaviors among adolescents. Researchers, they say, have found
modest evidence that media consumption contributes to the problem of obesity, modest to
strong evidence that it contributes to drinking and smoking, and strong evidence that it contributes to violence. Research has been insufficient to find links between heavy media exposure and
early sexual initiation.
The authors note the need for more large-scale longitudinal studies that specifically examine
the cumulative effects of electronic media on risky health behavior.
www.futureofchildren.org
Soledad Liliana Escobar-Chaves is assistant professor of health promotion and behavioral sciences at the University of Texas Health
Science Center at Houston. Craig A. Anderson is director of the Center for the Study of Violence and distinguished professor of liberal
arts and sciences in the Department of Psychology at Iowa State University.
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Soledad Liliana Escobar-Chaves and Craig A. Anderson
s children enter adolescence,
many begin to engage in risky
health behaviors. The U.S.
Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention (CDC) has
identified six critical types of adolescent
health risk behaviors—physical inactivity, poor
eating habits, smoking, alcohol use, sexual
behaviors, and violence—that contribute to
the leading causes of death and disability in
the United States among adults and youth.
Not only are these behaviors likely to compromise the present and future health of adolescents, they also are likely to cut short their
education, impair their employment prospects,
and even lead to crime, thus seriously putting
at risk other aspects of their well-being, both
as adolescents and adults.1
Adolescent health behaviors do not occur in
isolation. They grow out of complex interactions at the individual, peer, family, school,
community, and societal levels. Many observers have raised questions about whether one
important source of the risk behaviors highlighted by the CDC could be adolescents’
escalating exposure to electronic media.
American youth aged eight to eighteen now
spend an average of six to eight and a half
hours a day using various forms of media,
including television, videos, movies, radio,
print media, computers and video games, and
the Internet.2
Social science and health researchers have
examined and written extensively about the
possible connection between the high levels
of media exposure in the United States and
increased adolescent health risk behaviors. In
this article, we present and evaluate the
research findings on the links between adolescent exposure to electronic media and the
risky behaviors cited by the CDC: obesity
(which is in large part due to inactivity and
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T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
consumption of high-calorie foods), smoking,
alcohol use, early sexual initiation, and
violence.
Modern science distinguishes three types
of risk factors. Risk factors of the first type
have been shown through careful research
to have a causal impact on health problems.
For example, it is clear that heavy exposure to
media violence causes an increase in the likelihood of future aggressive and violent behavior.
Risk factors of the second type are believed
to have a causal impact but researchers have
not yet been able to confirm whether the
effect is truly causal. Risk factors of the third
type indicate a potential problem but are not
believed to contribute causally to the problem.
In this article we focus on what current scientific research has to say about the potential
causal impact of various forms of media on the
adolescent health risk behaviors noted earlier.
Another key scientific concept is “probabilistic
causality.” Most major health problems are
influenced by dozens of factors, some known
and some unknown. They are not governed
by a simple single-cause single-effect relationship. Thus, when modern science identifies a
causal risk factor, it regards it as a probabilistic
cause, one that increases the likelihood of,
but does not guarantee, the negative health
outcome. Even in the case of tobacco smoking
and lung cancer, one of the strongest causal
relationships in modern medicine, the causal
link is probabilistic. Not everyone who smokes
gets lung cancer, and some nonsmokers get
lung cancer. When scientists say that smoking
causes lung cancer, what they mean is that
smoking causes an increase in the likelihood
that a person will get lung cancer.
The research studies that address relationships
between risk factors and health outcomes
come in three main types, each with its
Media and Risky Behaviors
characteristic strengths and weaknesses. In
experimental studies, researchers randomly
assign participants to a treatment group and a
control group, thus making sure that, on
average, participants in the treatment group
do not systematically differ from those in the
control group. In a careful experiment,
researchers try to control for other potentially
important variables as well. To control for the
sex of the participants, for example, researchers would randomly assign half the male
participants and half the female participants to
each of the two comparison groups. Experimental studies effectively rule out many
alternative explanations of differences in
outcomes between the randomly assigned
groups and thus allow researchers to make
strong causal statements. The primary weakness of the experimental design is that for
many important questions it would be unethical or impossible to conduct a true experiment.
Researchers cannot, for example, randomly
assign newborn babies to a high- and a lowtelevision watching household to see whether
amount of television viewing during childhood
influences adolescent obesity.
The second type of study, the longitudinal
study, assesses the same participants two
or more times over a period of time. For
example, researchers might assess TV viewing
habits, physical activity, and obesity in a large
group of elementary school children every
September for five consecutive years. Such
a design makes it possible to see whether
children who watch a lot of television in year
one become more obese and less physically
active in the following five years, even after
researchers control statistically for how physically active and obese the children are at the
beginning of year one. A careful longitudinal
study also allows fairly strong causal statements, though it is difficult and expensive
to conduct.
The third type, the cross-sectional study, also
sometimes called an observational or correlational study, assesses the variables of interest (for example, television viewing, obesity,
and physical activity) only once, usually at
the same time. Such studies can test whether
there is an association between two variables
of interest; if they are done well, they may
allow a test of some key alternative explanations. But it is risky to assume that the link
they find is truly causal.
Because a study’s overall quality depends on
many other methodological factors, however,
a well-designed cross-sectional study can
yield more useful information than a poorly
designed experimental or longitudinal study.3
Obesity
Obesity and overweight among children are
defined, based on the 2000 CDC growth
reference for the United States, in terms of
body mass index (BMI), or a person’s weight
in kilograms divided by height in meters
squared.4 A person who is obese falls at or
above the 95th percentile of BMI-for-age. A
person who is overweight falls at or above the
85th percentile, but below the 95th percentile, of BMI-for-age.5
Obesity: The Scope of the Problem
U.S. adult obesity rates are among the world’s
highest and have increased for all age groups
over the past three decades.6 Data from
the National Health Examination Surveys
for 1976–80 and for 2003–04 show that the
prevalence of obesity for children aged six
to eleven has increased from 6.5 percent to
18.8 percent, and for those aged twelve to
nineteen from 5.0 percent to 17.4 percent.7
Approximately 35 percent of U.S. six- to
nineteen-year-olds are overweight, and almost
half of them are obese. All racial and ethnic
groups have become heavier, but Mexican
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Soledad Liliana Escobar-Chaves and Craig A. Anderson
Figure 1. Share of Students Who Were at Risk for Becoming Overweight, by Grade, 1999–2005
Percent
18
16
14
12
9th
10
10th
8
11th
6
12th
4
2
0
1999
2001
2003
2005
Source: Healthy Youth! YRBSS Youth Online: Comprehensive Results. http://apps.nccd.cdc.gov/yrbss/QuestYearTable.asp?path=byH
T&ByVar=CI&cat=5&quest=507&year=Trend&loc=XX (accessed July 25, 2007). Overweight is defined as being at or above the 85th
percentile but below the 95th percentile for body mass index.
Americans and African Americans are particularly affected by the epidemic. Overall, the
prevalence of being at risk for becoming overweight was higher among ninth graders (17.1
percent) than twelfth graders (14.8 percent)
(see figure 1).8
Obesity in children increases the risk of
poor health outcomes in adulthood. Health
problems include type 2 diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, orthopedic disorders,
and sleep disorders.9 Almost two-thirds (60
percent) of obese children have at least one
additional cardiovascular risk factor, such
as hypertension or hyperlipidemia.10 Obese
children are also at higher risk of becoming
obese adults.11
In 1995, obesity-related spending in the
United States was estimated to be $99 million.12
Most obesity-related health spending goes to
treat type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease,
and hypertension.13 The costs of obesity now
exceed those of tobacco use.14 It has been
estimated that obesity-related morbidity
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T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
accounts for approximately 6 percent of U.S.
health spending.15
Food advertising on TV
features mostly high-calorie
and low-nutrient foods and
beverages; advertisements for
healthful foods and beverages
are limited.
Media Exposure and Obesity
Researchers hypothesize that the link
between obesity and television use in children
and adolescents is a result of young people’s
decreased metabolic rates while watching TV,
their decreased physical activity as a result of
spending time in front of the screen, and their
increased caloric intake, either because they
eat while watching TV or because they eat
in response to food advertisements on TV.16
Other media, such as video games, may be
Media and Risky Behaviors
linked to obesity through the same pathways.
Advertisers spend about $1 billion a year
marketing food to children and adolescents,
who represent an important demographic
market for three reasons: they are customers
themselves, they influence purchases made
by parents and households, and they are the
future adult market.17 Television receives
more advertising dollars than other media
because it reaches a greater share of the targeted audiences.18
Food advertising is a big business in the
United States. In 1997, advertisers spent $1.4
billion to promote food products on network
TV and $1.2 billion to promote restaurants.19
More than 75 percent of the $7 billion spent
by food manufacturers for advertising in 1997
was allocated to television.20 Food advertising on TV features mostly high-calorie and
low-nutrient foods and beverages; advertisements for healthful foods and beverages are
limited.21 Each day adolescents aged thirteen
to seventeen see an average of thirty-five
minutes of TV advertising, which includes an
average of seventeen food ads.22
We will examine evidence uncovered by
researchers about possible links between
obesity and television viewing, movies, video
games, and the Internet.
Television Viewing and Obesity
A variety of research studies have found significant associations between obesity and TV
viewing. Experimental studies, as noted, provide the strongest form of causal evidence.
One such study, designed to prevent obesity
by reducing third and fourth graders’ use
of television, videotapes, and video games,
divided 192 children attending two public
elementary schools in California into two
groups, an intervention and a control group.
The children in the intervention group were
taught an eighteen-lesson curriculum, after
which they had a ten-day television turnoff
(no TV, videotapes, or video games). Parents
of children in the intervention group received
motivational newsletters. As compared with
the control group, the intervention group had
significantly smaller increases in BMI and in
three of four other measures of adiposity. The
intervention group also reduced TV viewing
by four to six hours a week and ate one fewer
meal a week in a room with the TV on.23
A longitudinal study examined two sets of
data, one collected between 1963 and 1965
from a national sample of 6,965 children aged
six to eleven and the other collected between
1966 and 1970 from a sample of 6,671 adolescents aged twelve to seventeen. Investigators
measured TV viewing (hours) and fatness
(triceps skinfold). Among both the younger
children and the adolescents, those who
watched more TV had a greater prevalence
of obesity or super-obesity than those who
watched less TV.24
Several experimental studies grew out of
efforts to fight childhood obesity by limiting
television viewing. The Stanford GEMS pilot
study used after-school dance classes and a
family-based intervention to reduce TV and
videotape viewing and video game use. Girls
in the treatment group reduced BMI and
waist circumference, increased after-school
physical activity, and reduced television,
videotape, and video game use.25
Planet Health, a controlled field trial with five
intervention and five control schools included
a total of 1,295 youth (whose mean age was
11.7 years). The intervention included thirtytwo classroom lessons, each forty-five minutes
long, taught over a two-year period, and a
two-week campaign to reduce TV viewing in
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Soledad Liliana Escobar-Chaves and Craig A. Anderson
households. Both girls and boys in the intervention schools reduced TV watching; girls
who reduced TV use reduced obesity, and all
ate more fruits and vegetables.26 However,
not all interventions focusing on reduction of
weight through increased activity, decreased
electronic media exposure, and changed eating patterns have reported effects.
Other, less conclusive, studies have examined
the link between exposure to TV and obesity
in observational or cross-sectional fashion. For
example, an observational study reported that
among youth, increases in TV viewing were
linked with increases in total energy intake and
that the intake of foods commonly advertised
on TV mediated this link.27 A cross-sectional
study found that among youth aged ten to
fifteen, the odds of being overweight were
nearly five times greater for those who viewed
five hours of TV a day than for those who
viewed two hours or less.28 More recently,
Carlos J. Crespo and several colleagues found
that the prevalence of obesity among children
aged eight to sixteen was lowest among those
watching no more than one hour of TV a day
and highest among those watching four or
more hours of TV daily. Television watching
was positively associated with obesity among
girls. In other words, girls who watched more
TV were more likely to be obese even after
researchers accounted for other possible risk
factors such as their age, race and ethnicity,
family income, weekly physical activity, and
energy intake.29
In 2001, an experimental study among preschool children showed that the effects of
television advertising were the same for boys
and girls, for children whose home language
was English and whose home language was
Spanish, and for children with varying levels
of access to media. Preschoolers in the control group watched two animated shorts with
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T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
a 2.5-minute educational segment; those in
the treatment group watched the same two
animated shorts but edited into the middle
and end were two segments of commercials
for products frequently advertised on children’s TV programs. The advertisements
were for juice, sandwich bread, doughnuts,
candy, a fast food chicken entrée, snack
cakes, breakfast cereal, peanut butter, and
a toy. Immediately after viewing the shorts,
both groups of children were interviewed.
Those who saw the advertisements preferred
the advertised brand over a similar product
with similar packaging, even if the advertised
brand was unfamiliar and the alternate was a
local favorite.30
Each day adolescents
aged thirteen to seventeen
see an average of thirty-five
minutes of TV advertising,
which includes an average
of seventeen food ads.
Self-reported data from a cross-sectional
study among 400 fourth and fifth graders
showed that children who viewed more
television were less informed about the
relative healthfulness of foods and beverages,
regardless of their gender, race and ethnicity,
reading level, parents’ education level, and
parents’ occupation.31 More recently, Kirsten
Harrison conducted a similar study among
134 children in grades one through three and
concluded that advertising diet foods on
television may confuse children, who may not
understand the difference between weightloss benefits and nutritional benefits. The
study measured children twice, six weeks
Media and Risky Behaviors
apart, for beliefs about healthful food choices
offered as pairs; two pairs were diet food
items (fat-free ice cream versus cottage
cheese and Diet Coke versus orange juice)
and four were regular food items (celery
versus carrots, rice cakes versus wheat bread,
jelly versus peanut butter, and lettuce versus
spinach). The more children watched television, the less accurate their choices for diet
foods (both pairs had items likely to be advertised on television) but not for regular foods
(only one of four pairs had items likely to be
advertised on television).32
Movies and Obesity
Researchers have conducted few studies of
links between watching movies and children’s
obesity. Because movies do not typically
include product advertisements, the marketing strategy most used in movies is product
placement—that is, the use by popular actors
and characters of a particular product in
the movie itself.33 The strategy is indirect
and subtle, yet powerful.34 It is also commonplace in movies aimed at children and
adolescents.35
Researchers conducted an experimental
study of product placement in films among
105 children—forty-eight eleven- and twelveyear-olds and fifty-seven six- and seven-yearolds—in the United Kingdom. Half of the
children, those in the treatment group, saw
a 110-second clip from the film Home Alone
that featured a character drinking Pepsi
Cola. The other children, those in the control
group, saw a similar clip from the same movie
that did not include the Pepsi episode. After
viewing the clips, investigators randomly
took children to a separate interview room
that had a table with cups and small cans of
Coke and Pepsi. Children who saw the Pepsi
branded clip were significantly more likely to
choose Pepsi.36
Video Games and Obesity
Food marketers also have sought to capitalize on the popularity of video games and
the Internet among youth. Product placement is difficult to implement effectively in
traditional console video games, where the
placement must be part of the original programming and cannot be changed once the
game is released.37 New technology, however,
is making it possible to insert specific brands
into video games through the Internet and
to track gamers’ exposure to these product
placements.38
Researchers have not yet rigorously tested
possible links between video gaming and
obesity. Cross-sectional data from a study
conducted among 2,831 children aged one to
twelve showed that video game use was positively related to elevated weight status, but
only for girls aged nine to twelve who played
moderate amounts of games.39 Some evidence
suggests video game playing induces higher
energy expenditure among children, even
while sitting.40 But analysts emphasize that the
intensity of video game play should not substitute for regular physical exercise, because
energy expended in playing video games is
more stress-based than aerobic-based.41
Some anecdotal evidence suggests that
interactive video games that require intense
physical movement are making a positive
difference. Dance Dance Revolution, a popular video game available for home use, is
being tested by researchers at West Virginia
University’s School of Physical Education in
school settings.42 Publicity pieces report that
study participants show improvements in
their aerobic capacity, blood vessel function,
and fitness level.43
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The Internet and Obesity
Product placement on Internet-based games,
easily incorporated and easy to change as
product popularity ebbs and flows, has given
rise to what is known as “advergames” or
“advertainment.”44 Advergames are Internetbased games with a commercial message,
either subtle or overt, that can be found on
product or brand websites. Most websites
for popular children’s TV channels (Nick.
com, Cartoonnetwork.com, 4Kids.tv, Disney.
com) or toy products (Lego, Hasbro, Mattel)
feature games that incorporate characters and
products to build and extend brand loyalty.
For example, SpongeBob SquarePants (Kraft)
was the top-selling macaroni and cheese
in 2002.45 Increasingly, advergames can be
found on websites for foods marketed almost
exclusively to children and adolescents. The
McDonald’s, Kellogg’s, General Mills, and
Hostess websites all have games for children
featuring their products. Although advertainment has not been linked directly to
childhood obesity, it certainly contributes to
children’s choices about foods and beverages.
Obesity: Summary
The growing epidemic of childhood obesity
has focused attention on the possible role
that media consumption and food advertising
may play in influencing body weight and eating behaviors. Current evidence, however, is
not sufficient to determine the possible contribution of electronic media use, especially
television and movies, to the obesity problem.
Hence, additional research is needed before
definitive causal conclusions can be made.
Evidence is stronger for factors such as the
lowered cost of food, the increase in caloriedense foods, the large portion sizes, and the
widespread availability of fast food restaurants.46 However, advocates are taking steps
to reduce the marketing of unhealthful foods
to children and adolescents and to reduce
time spent on passive electronic media.
Smoking
Cigarette smoking among adolescents is
one of the ten greatest U.S. government
health concerns.47 Smoking is associated with
such health problems as cough and phlegm
Figure 2. Share of Students Who Smoked Cigarettes on One or More of the Past 30 Days,
by Grade, 1991–2005
Percent
45
40
35
9th
30
25
10th
20
11th
15
12th
10
5
0
1991
1993
1995
1997
1999
2001
2003
2005
Source: Healthy Youth! YRBSS Youth Online: Comprehensive Results. http://apps.nccd.cdc.gov/yrbss/QuestYearTable.asp?cat=2&Qu
est=Q30&Loc=XX&Year=Trend&compval=&Graphval=no&path=byHT&loc2=&colval=Race&rowval1=All&rowval2=None&ByVar=CI&Subm
it2=GO (accessed July 25, 2007).
15 4
T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
Media and Risky Behaviors
production, an increase in the number and
severity of respiratory illnesses, decreased
physical fitness, unfavorable lipid profile,
and potential retardation in the rate of lung
growth and the level of maximum lung function.48 Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States.49 Daily
smoking may lead to coronary heart disease
and lung cancer, though usually among adults
because these effects usually manifest themselves only after many years of exposure. In
1999, for each of the approximately 22 billion
packs of cigarettes sold in the United States,
the nation spent $3.45 on smoking-related
medical care and incurred $3.73 in productivity losses.50 During 1997–2001, cigarette
smoking and exposure to tobacco smoke
resulted in some 438,000 premature deaths
annually, as well as 5.5 million years of potential life lost and $92 billion in productivity
losses each year.51
Smoking: The Scope of the Problem
The majority of new smokers are children
and adolescents. In 2005, 63 percent of all
new smokers were younger than eighteen.
The 2.3 million adolescents aged twelve or
older who smoked cigarettes for the first
time during 2005 represented a 20 percent
increase from 2002, but the overall trends in
cigarette smoking among U.S. high school
students show a decrease since 1997.52
Nevertheless, according to the 2005 Youth
Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), nationwide
more than half of students (54 percent) in
grades nine to twelve had ever tried cigarette
smoking (even one or two puffs); 23 percent
had smoked cigarettes during the thirty days
preceding the survey; 8 percent had used
smokeless tobacco, such as chewing tobacco,
snuff, or dip; and 14 percent had smoked
cigars, cigarillos, or little cigars during the
thirty days before the survey. Overall, the
prevalence of current cigarette use was
higher among white (26 percent) and Hispanic (22 percent) than black (13 percent)
students.53 Twelfth-grade students reported
the highest prevalence of current cigarette
use (27.6 percent). (See figure 2.) Although
cigarette smoking has been declining, a large
share of U.S. students has tried cigarettes.
Media Exposure and Smoking
Among the external factors that can influence smoking initiation in adolescents are
peer pressure, social norms, law enforcement
regarding sales of cigarettes to minors, and
advertising and promotion. Adolescents are
flooded with promotional messages.54 During
2003, cigarette companies spent $15.2 billion
to promote their products, including $156.4
million on magazine advertising and $32.6
million on outdoor advertising.55 Outdoor
advertising includes billboards; signs and
placards in arenas, stadiums, and shopping
malls; and any other advertisements placed
outdoors, including those on cigarette retailer
property no matter their size.56
The scientific community has examined the
extent to which cigarette advertising is a contributing causal factor to adolescent smoking.
Because researchers cannot ethically conduct
randomized controlled trials of the effects
of advertising (they could not knowingly risk
encouraging smoking), they must rely on
other, less conclusive, forms of evidence.
John P. Pierce and several colleagues conducted a longitudinal study with a three-year
follow-up (between 1993 and 1996) among
1,752 adolescents aged twelve to seventeen
who had never smoked to evaluate the association between their receptiveness to tobacco
advertising and promotion and their starting
to smoke. The authors established three levels
of receptivity: high, intermediate, and
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Soledad Liliana Escobar-Chaves and Craig A. Anderson
minimal, depending on how the adolescent
responds to a basic exposure to advertising
(that is, does the adolescent have a favorite
tobacco advertisement or recall a billboard or
magazine tobacco ad). They categorized the
study participants into four mutually exclusive
categories: nonsusceptible never-smokers
(those who responded negatively when asked
whether they would try a cigarette soon,
accept a cigarette offered by a friend, or were
thinking about smoking during the next year),
susceptible never-smokers (those who
responded affirmatively when asked these
three questions), experimenters (those who
reported having smoked or tried even a few
puffs of a cigarette), and established smokers
(those who reported smoking at least 100
cigarettes in their life). Almost 50 percent of
the nonsusceptible never-smokers progressed
toward smoking within the three-year followup period. Sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds
were twice as likely as younger participants to
become susceptible never-smokers within the
three-year follow-up.57 Analysis of the data
demonstrated that receptivity to tobacco
advertising and promotion was a predictor of
established smoking. Experimenters who
were highly receptive to tobacco marketing
were 70 percent more likely than those who
were minimally receptive to become established smokers at follow-up.58
Another longitudinal study examined the link
between tobacco marketing and adolescent
smoking among 529 youths aged twelve to
fifteen. Analysts interviewed adolescents
over the phone in 1993 and followed them
up four years later. They asked participants
if they had clothing or some other object
with a tobacco brand name or logo on it and
asked them to name the cigarette ad that
had attracted their attention the most. Teens
who were highly receptive to such forms of
marketing in 1993 were more than twice as
15 6
T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
likely as those with low receptivity to become
established smokers by 1997. At the four-year
follow-up, 21 percent of the adolescents had
become established smokers (having smoked
at least 100 cigarettes).59
Several cross-sectional studies have examined the links between media advertising
and adolescent smoking behavior. Although
individually they cannot prove causality, all
have found a significant correlation between
cigarette advertising and adolescents’ smoking initiation.60
Researchers have conducted no studies on
links between smoking and video games,
music, and the Internet. We will review what
is known about smoking and television viewing, including music videos, and movies.
Television and Smoking
Smoking on television remains widespread in
prime-time programming. Little data exist
about links between smoking as portrayed on
television and in music videos and when
adolescents begin to smoke. Pradeep Gidwani
examined the relationship between television
exposure in 1990 and smoking initiation
between 1990 and 1992 among U.S. adolescents aged ten to fifteen. Among the sample,
smoking increased from 4.8 percent in 1990
to 12.3 percent in 1992. The study found
important associations between how much
adolescents watched TV and when they began
smoking. Adolescents who watched more than
five hours of TV a day were almost six times
more likely to start smoking than those who
watched two hours or less a day. Those who
watched more than four to five hours of TV a
day were more than five times more likely to
start smoking than those who watched two
hours or less.61 Other studies have made
similar findings: the more TV that adolescents
watch, the more positive they feel about
Media and Risky Behaviors
smoking, the more likely they are to begin
smoking, and the sooner they start smoking.62
Many studies provide clear
and strong evidence that
youth are more susceptible to
viewing smoking favorably
and to becoming smokers
as a result of exposure to
smoking in the media.
Content analysis of 518 music videos shown
on TV from May to June 1994 found that
Music Television (MTV) had the highest
share of videos (25.7 percent) with smokingrelated behaviors, followed by Video Hits
One (VHI), Country Music Television
(CMT), and Black Entertainment Television
(BET). Researchers have found that even
moderate music television viewing results in
significant exposure to portrayals of cigarette
smoking.63 These 1994 data are the most
recent available.
Movies and Smoking
Analysts have used both short-term experimental studies and longitudinal studies to
examine the link between exposure to smoking in the movies and both adolescents’ views
of smoking and their smoking initiation.
In 1998, the attorneys general and other
representatives of forty-six U.S. states explicitly banned cigarette advertising to children
and youth on billboards, any motion picture,
television show, theatrical production or
other live performance, commercial film or
video, or video game. Despite the ban, movies
in 2002 featured roughly as much smoking
as they did in 1950.64 Advertisers know that
many people, and especially younger people,
are influenced by what they see in movies.
An analysis of fifty G-rated animated movies
released between 1937 and 1997 found that
tobacco was used by at least one character
in 68 percent of the films overall and in 56
percent of the films released in 1996 and
1997. Both good and bad characters smoked.
Tobacco use in Disney films made before
and after 1964 was similar despite the release
in that year of the first surgeon general’s
report linking smoking to lung cancer.65 In
2004, 78 percent of middle school students
reported seeing actors using tobacco on television or in movies.66
One experimental study divided 232 ninth
graders into two groups, with one viewing a
movie preview that portrayed smoking, the
other viewing a preview that did not portray
smoking. Study participants completed a
written survey that measured beliefs about
smokers and smoking. Those who viewed the
smoking scenes had more positive views of
smoking and smokers than those who
did not.67
One longitudinal study published in 2003
reported a strong link between exposure to
movie smoking and smoking initiation among
2,603 adolescents aged ten to fourteen. The
study measured exposure to smoking in movies by asking participants to indicate the films
they had seen from a list of fifty. It found
significant associations between exposure to
movie smoking and smoking initiation after
adjusting for age, sex, and school grade. Ten
percent of the participants began smoking
during the follow-up period. Researchers also
assessed potential interactions between exposure to movie smoking and other smoking risk
factors such as age, sex, and social influences
(for example, smoking by a friend, sibling,
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Soledad Liliana Escobar-Chaves and Craig A. Anderson
or parent). They found a significant interaction between exposure to movie smoking and
parental smoking behaviors. For adolescents
with nonsmoking parents, the risk of smoking
initiation increased with greater exposure to
movie smoking. Adolescents with smoking
parents had an overall higher risk of smoking
initiation. After controlling for all covariates,
the researchers found that 52.2 percent of
the smoking initiation in this cohort could be
attributed to exposure to smoking in movies.68
Similar results were found in a longitudinal
study by Janet M. Distefan, who conducted
a random-digit-dialing telephone survey in
1996 of 3,104 never-smokers aged twelve
to fifteen. In a follow-up three years later
among 67 percent of the adolescents (2,084),
the study found that for adolescent girls who
had never smoked, viewing their favorite stars
smoking in movies significantly increased the
risk of future smoking, independent of effects
arising from other tobacco advertising and
promotional practices. Moreover, adolescent
girls whose favorite star smoked in movies
released between 1994 and 1996, before the
baseline survey, were more than 80 percent
more likely to smoke by the time of the
follow-up interview than those whose favorite
star did not smoke in movies.69 A more recent
study of more than 2,600 nonsmoking fifthto eighth-graders found that exposure to
smoking in movies increased the likelihood of
smoking onset eighteen months later in two
different ways, both directly, though modeling and imitation, and indirectly, through
increased affiliation with peers who smoke.
Researchers found these effects even when
they took into account other risk factors such
as parenting style, rebelliousness and sensation seeking, school performance, parental
smoking, sibling smoking, and several demographic variables.70
15 8
T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
Smoking: Summary
The media bring billions of impersonations
of glamorized smoking to millions of youths
through TV, movies, video games, music, the
Internet, and advertisement in general. Longitudinal, experimental, and cross-sectional
studies provide clear and strong evidence that
youth are more susceptible to viewing smoking favorably and to becoming smokers as a
result of exposure to smoking in the media.
Additional research is needed on the effects
of portrayals of smoking on the Internet and
in video games and music.
Alcohol Use
Alcohol use by children and adolescents
continues to be a problem. It brings several
negative consequences at the personal, familial, and societal levels. It affects school performance and induces high-risk behaviors.
Alcohol plays an important role in the three
leading causes of death among youth: unintentional injuries (including motor vehicle fatalities and drowning), suicides, and homicides.71
Alcohol Use: The Scope of the Problem
Alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence are
widespread problems among U.S. adolescents. Results from the YRBS 2005 of a
nationally representative sample of students
in grades nine through twelve showed that 74
percent had had at least one drink of alcohol
on more than one day during their life; 43
percent had had at least one drink of alcohol
in the thirty days preceding the survey. Overall, the prevalence of current alcohol use was
higher among white (46 percent) and Hispanic (47 percent) students than among
blacks (31 percent), and higher among
twelfth graders (50.8 percent) than ninth,
tenth, and eleventh graders. (See figure 3.)
Moreover, 26 percent of students had had
five or more drinks of alcohol in a row (that
is, within a couple of hours) on one or more
Media and Risky Behaviors
Figure 3. Share of Students Who Had at Least One Drink of Alcohol on One or More of the Past
30 Days, by Grade, 1991–2005
Percent
70
60
50
9th
40
10th
30
11th
20
12th
10
0
1991
1993
1995
1997
1999
2001
2003
2005
Source: Healthy Youth! YRBSS Youth Online: Comprehensive Results. http://apps.nccd.cdc.gov/yrbss/QuestYearTable.asp?cat=3&Qu
est=Q41&Loc=XX&Year=Trend&compval=&Graphval=no&path=byHT&loc2=&colval=Race&rowval1=All&rowval2=None&ByVar=CI&Subm
it2=GO (accessed: July 25, 2007).
of the thirty days preceding the survey.72
People who begin drinking at age fourteen or
younger are approximately four times as likely
to become alcohol dependent as are those who
begin drinking at age twenty or older.73 Moreover, underage drinking is associated with
greater risk of motor vehicle crashes, problems
in school, fighting, and crime. Indeed, some
5,000 youth under age twenty-one die each
year in the United States from alcohol-related
injuries involving underage drinking.74 The
cost to society of underage drinking is estimated to be $3 per illegal drink.75
Media Exposure and Alcohol Use
Alcohol advertising is ubiquitous in sporting
events and broadcast media and is also present
on the Internet. Each year the alcohol industry
spends more than $1 billion on television,
radio, print, and outdoor advertising.76 The
alcohol industry’s voluntary advertising codes
provide that alcohol advertising should not be
overtly directed to underage consumers.77 The
electronic media, however, still show alcohol
use as a normative and harmless behavior.78
Alcohol advertising is designed to appeal to
children and adolescents. It sells images of
success, sexuality, fun, and love, and it can be
found in movies (no matter the rating), television, magazines, billboards, and radio.79
Over a three-week period in 2003, the Center
on Alcohol Marketing and Youth reviewed
seventy-four websites operated by alcohol
companies and found widespread use of
features catalogued as potentially attractive
to underage youth. Nearly 700,000 in-depth
visits to fifty-five alcohol websites during the
last six months of 2003, for example, were
initiated by underage youth.80
When analysts examined alcohol advertising
in magazines from 1997 to 2001 to see
whether placement of the ads was associated
with adolescent readership, they found that
the number of beer and distilled spirits ads
tended to increase with a magazine’s youth
readership. For each additional 1 million
magazine readers aged twelve to nineteen,
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Soledad Liliana Escobar-Chaves and Craig A. Anderson
they found 1.6 times more beer advertisements.81 Alcohol advertisements are often
more concentrated in media directed to
youth than in media directed to adults.82
Accumulating evidence suggests that alcohol
advertising may contribute to adolescent
drinking.
Accumulating evidence
suggests that alcohol
advertising may contribute
to adolescent drinking.
No research exists on links between adolescents’ alcohol use and alcohol advertising in
video games, music, and the Internet. We will
review what is known about alcohol use on
television, including music videos, and in
movies.
Television Advertising and Alcohol Use
Alcoholic drinks are the beverages most
commonly advertised on TV.83 From 2001 to
2005, alcohol companies spent $4.7 billion on
1.4 million advertisements for alcoholic
beverages on television. Youth overexposure
to alcohol is more often found on cable since
cable networks usually have more narrowly
defined and concentrated viewers than
broadcast networks. From 2001 to 2005,
youth overexposure to alcohol advertising on
cable increased from 60 percent to 93 percent.84 In the spring of 2000, researchers
recruited 2,998 seventh graders from Los
Angeles for a longitudinal study to look at how
televised alcohol commercials might have
influenced their alcohol consumption one
year later. Participants indicated the number
of times during the past month that they
16 0
T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
watched programs drawn from a list of
twenty popular TV series. They also
responded to psychosocial, behavioral, and
alcohol-related questions. The study found a
strong association between exposure to
television beer ads in grade seven and alcohol
consumption in grade eight, even after taking
into account other risk factors such as prior
alcohol use, intentions, peer and adult alcohol
use, peer norms, and sports participation.85
A recent longitudinal study of 1,786 middle
school children in South Dakota measured
exposure during sixth grade to television beer
advertisements, alcohol ads in magazines,
in-store beer displays, and beer concessions;
radio listening time; and beer promotional
items such as T-shirts, hats, and posters. The
study then measured drinking intentions and
subsequent behavior during seventh grade.
Findings supported a positive link between
alcohol-related media exposure during sixth
grade and beer drinking and drinking intentions in seventh grade. After making statistical adjustments for psychosocial factors and
drinking in sixth grade, the study found that
children who had high exposure to overall
alcohol advertising during sixth grade were 50
percent more likely to drink during seventh
grade than children who had low exposure.86
In New Zealand, a longitudinal study of 667
youths examined the association between
their recall of alcohol advertising at ages
thirteen and fifteen and their alcohol consumption at age eighteen. Boys who recalled
more commercial advertisements at age
fifteen reported consuming more beer three
years later. The study found no association
between girls’ drinking and advertising
exposure.87
Phyllis L. Ellickson conducted a longitudinal
study of the relationship between exposure to
Media and Risky Behaviors
different forms of alcohol advertising—televised sports and late night programs that air
beer commercials, magazines that advertise
alcohol, beer concession stands, and in-store
beer displays—and drinking behavior in a
sample of 3,111 early adolescents in South
Dakota. Adolescents were assessed three
times, in seventh, eighth, and ninth grades.
Nondrinking students in seventh grade who
reported higher exposure to in-store beer
displays were more likely to drink alcohol by
grade nine. Students who were drinking in
seventh grade and who reported exposure to
magazines with alcohol advertisements and
to beer concession stands at sports or music
events reported increased frequency of drinking in grade nine. Exposure to television beer
ads, however, was not significantly linked to
drinking in ninth grade for either drinkers or
nondrinkers.88
three G-rated animated movies available on
videocassettes for purchase or rental before
October 31, 2000, forty-six contained scenes
of alcohol use. Of the characters shown drinking in these films, 39 percent drank wine, 24
percent beer, 20 percent champagne, and 17
percent hard liquor or mixed drinks.90
A longitudinal study conducted in California
examined the relationship between students’
exposure to different types of media (TV,
music video, and videotape viewing; computer and video game use) and their alcohol
use eighteen months later. At the eighteenmonth follow-up, students reported increased
lifetime drinking (36 percent of baseline
nondrinkers began drinking and 51 percent
of baseline drinkers continued to drink). The
study found a strong link between watching
TV and music videos and subsequent onset of
alcohol use. For each extra hour of TV viewing a day, the risk of starting to drink over the
next eighteen months increased an average of
9 percent; for each extra hour a day of viewing
music videos, the risk increased an average of
31 percent.89
James D. Sargent and colleagues conducted
a school-based cross-sectional survey among
adolescents aged ten to fourteen, with a
follow-up of 2,406 never-drinkers thirteen
to twenty-six months later to assess whether
drinking in movies was related to early-onset
drinking. They found that 92 percent of movies in a pool of 601 popular contemporary
films depicted alcohol use. They estimated
exposure to these movies by asking participants whether they had ever seen any films
from a set of fifty titles randomly selected
from the pool. Alcohol initiation was assessed
by the question: “Have you ever had beer,
wine, or other drink with alcohol that your
parents didn’t know about?” Researchers
found that 50 percent of the participants
were exposed to eight or more hours of movies and that movie exposure was related to a
significantly higher likelihood of early-onset
alcohol use even after controlling for age,
self-esteem, rebelliousness, sensation seeking, and parenting style.94
Movies and Alcohol Use
Although movies do not feature advertisements for alcohol, even animated films
frequently depict alcohol use. Of eighty-
Alcohol use was portrayed in nineteen of
thirty-three Walt Disney animated movies
available from 1937 through 1997.91 Of a
sample of 110 top-grossing American films
released between 1985 and 1995, at least one
lead character used alcohol in 79 percent.92
Of the 200 most popular movie rentals for
1996 and 1997, 93 percent showed a character drinking alcohol. In 9 percent of these
movies, 22 percent of the characters who
drank alcohol appeared to be younger than
eighteen.93
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Soledad Liliana Escobar-Chaves and Craig A. Anderson
Figure 4. Share of Students Who Ever Had Sexual Intercourse, by Grade, 1991–2005
Percent
80
70
60
9th
50
10th
40
30
11th
20
12th
10
0
1991
1993
1995
1997
1999
2001
2003
2005
Source: Healthy Youth! YRBSS Youth Online: Comprehensive Results. http://apps.nccd.cdc.gov/yrbss/QuestYearTable.asp?cat=4&Qu
est=Q57&Loc=XX&Year=Trend&compval=&Graphval=no&path=byHT&loc2=&colval=Race&rowval1=All&rowval2=None&ByVar=CI&Subm
it2=GO accessed July 25, 2007).
Alcohol Use: Summary
Overall, the research strongly suggests
that exposure to alcohol advertising and to
electronic media that portray alcohol use
increases adolescents’ alcohol use. Additional
research is needed for video games, the
Internet, and music, but the existing studies,
especially longitudinal ones, strongly support
a causal link between alcohol portrayal in TV
and movies and later alcohol use.
Early Sexual Initiation
Early sexual initiation has been associated
with an increased risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and teen pregnancy.95
Youth who initiate sexual intercourse at age
thirteen or younger (about 6 percent of youth
this age) are more likely to report having
multiple lifetime sexual partners, engaging
in frequent sexual intercourse, using alcohol
or drugs before sex, and having sex without
a condom.96 Adolescent STIs including HIV
are serious public health problems. In 2000,
youth between the ages of fifteen and twentyfour accounted for 9.1 million (48 percent)
16 2
T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
of all new STI cases at an estimated medical
cost of $6.5 billion.97
Early Sexual Initiation: The Scope
of the Problem
Adolescents are engaging in sexual risk-taking
behaviors at an earlier age, often before they
are developmentally ready to deal with the
potential outcomes. Data from the 2005 YRBS
indicate that 6.2 percent of high school students engage in sex before the age of thirteen.98
According to data from the 2003 Middle
School Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance
Survey, 6 percent of sixth graders and 9 percent of eighth graders have engaged in sexual
intercourse (implicitly, vaginal intercourse).99
In 2005, a total of 47 percent of ninth- to
twelfth-grade students had had sexual intercourse, with the prevalence higher among
black (68 percent) than white (43 percent)
and Hispanic (51 percent) students. Figure 4
shows the share of students in ninth, tenth,
eleventh, and twelfth grade who have ever
had sexual intercourse.
Media and Risky Behaviors
Media Exposure and Early Sexual
Initiation
Children and adolescents are exposed to
indirect as well as to explicit, sexually oriented media marketing that sells everything
from soda to candy to male body products.
Still, virtually no attention has been given
to the ways in which the sexual content of
advertising may shape adolescent sexual
behavior. According to one study, the share
of undressed women in advertisements
has changed little over the past forty years,
whereas that of undressed men has increased
significantly, especially since the early 1980s.
The impact of these increased portrayals of
nude men remains unexamined.100 Likewise,
few studies have addressed the question of
whether the exposure of children and adolescents to sexual talk and sexual content in
the media might influence adolescent sexual
behavior.101 We found only one relevant piece
of evidence, a cross-sectional study of the link
between sexual content of movies and adolescent sexual behavior. That study found that
among adolescent black females, exposure
to X-rated movies was associated with more
sexual behavior, although it is difficult to say
much from one cross-sectional study.102
No research exists on links between sexual
behavior and video games and the Internet.
We will examine research on the association
between sexual behavior and sexual content
on television, including music videos on television, and music.
Television and Early Sexual Initiation
Roughly two-thirds of TV programs contain
sexual content, yet few studies have examined
the association over time between exposure to
TV and sexual behaviors in adolescents.103 A
longitudinal study conducted by James Peterson and colleagues suggested a positive link
between amount of television watched and
early initiation of sexual intercourse, but the
effect size was not statistically significant.104
Rebecca Collins and several colleagues presented findings from a recent longitudinal
study that took into account other risk factors,
such as age, race and ethnicity, social environment, religiosity, deviant behavior, mental
health, and sensation seeking, and still found
a significant association between the amount
of sexual content viewed by adolescents and
their sexual behavior one year later. Watching
TV that featured sexual content had the effect
of artificially aging youths: those who watched
more such content than average behaved sexually as if they were nine to seventeen months
older and watched only average amounts of
such content. Exposure to talk about sex was
associated with the same risk as exposure to
more visually explicit programming.105
Virtually no attention has
been given to the ways in
which the sexual content of
advertising may shape
adolescent sexual behavior.
Several cross-sectional studies have shown
a link between sexual exposure on TV and
sexual behavior among adolescents. These
studies suggest that high school students
who watch television shows with high sexual
content are more likely to be sexually active
than those viewing television shows with less
sexual content and that adolescents’ sexual
media consumption is significantly related
to their sexual experience and intentions to
be sexually active.106 Other studies suggest
that adolescents who view more television
with sexual content tend to overestimate the
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Soledad Liliana Escobar-Chaves and Craig A. Anderson
Figure 5. Overall U.S. Assault Rates and Six Twelfth-Grade Violence Prevalence Rates, 1982–2003
Percentage of students who committed the act
within the last year
Overall U.S. assaults per 10,000
16
48
14
42
School property
damage
12
36
U.S. assaults
per 10,000
10
30
Multiple group
fights
8
24
Multiple assaults
with injury
6
18
Robbery with
weapon
4
12
Hit a supervisor/
instructor
2
6
0
0
1985
1987
1989
1991
1993
1995
1997
1999
2001
Arson
2003
Source: Criminal Victimization in the United States, 2005, U.S. Department of Justice. Downloaded July 1, 2007 from: http://www.ojp.
usdoj.gov/bjs/abstract/cvusst.htm. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 2003, 31st Edition, U.S.
Department of Justice. Downloaded on June 29, 2007 from: http://www.albany.edu/sourcebook.
frequency of certain sexual behaviors and
to have more permissive attitudes toward
premarital sex.107 One study found that youth
who were exposed to portrayals of sexual
relations outside of marriage were less likely
to view nonmarital sex negatively than youth
exposed to portrayals of sexual relations
within marriage or to scenes of nonsexual
relations.108
In a small 1986 study on television music
videos, adolescents who had just watched
an hour of MTV videos were more likely to
report approval of premarital sex than those
who had not.109 A decade later, a larger study
found that among adolescent girls the link
between exposure to music videos and permissive attitudes toward premarital sex was
stronger than it was among adolescent boys
and stronger for girls with low rather than
high family satisfaction.110 The data cannot
determine a causal relationship, and the
sample size and study design do not allow
taking into account extraneous and potentially confounding variables.
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T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
Music and Early Sexual Initiation
Radio, CDs, and tapes make up 17 percent of
teens’ total daily media exposure. On average,
adolescents listen to music between 1.5 and
2.5 hours a day depending on their age.111 Yet
only one study has examined the relationship
over time between exposure to music and
sexual behaviors in adolescents. Steven
Martino and several colleagues conducted a
national longitudinal telephone survey in
2001, 2002, and 2004 of a sample of adolescents aged twelve to seventeen. Interviewers
asked about media use; about sexual knowledge, attitudes, and behavior; and about
demographic and psychosocial variables
known to predict sexual behavior or media
use. They found that adolescents who spent
more time listening to music with degrading
sexual content were more likely to initiate
sexual intercourse and to progress in their
noncoital activity than those who spent less
time. That finding held up even when
researchers took into account eighteen other
predictors of sexual behavior.112
Media and Risky Behaviors
Early Sexual Initiation: Summary
Although the media are ubiquitous and
although scientific studies have demonstrated
their influence on other behaviors such as
smoking, relatively few studies have examined
their relationship with child and adolescent
sexual initiation. Most of the studies have
examined the association in a cross-sectional
fashion, which does not permit inferences to
be made about a causal connection but does
allow assessments of whether media is at all
associated with sexual early initiation. Those
few studies, however, suggest that media
exposure can increase early sexual behavior.
Aggressive and Violent Behavior
Aggression is usually defined by behavioral
scientists as behavior that is intended to harm
another person. Common forms of aggression are physical (for example, punching),
verbal (for example, saying or writing hurtful things to another person), and relational
(for example, intentionally and publicly not
inviting someone to a party to harm his social
relationships). Violence usually is conceived
as more extreme forms of physical aggression
that are likely to result in physical injury. The
most extreme form of violence is homicide,
but any form of aggressive behavior that is
likely to result in an injury serious enough to
warrant medical attention is considered violence. Thus, fights involving weapons as well
as fistfights by adolescents old enough to be
able to inflict serious injuries are considered
acts of violence.
The relation of these terms to violent “crime”
requires some comment. The vast majority of
media violence research focuses on aggressive
and violent behavior as defined earlier. Violent
crime is a much more restrictive category and
is applied only in cases where someone has
been arrested for a crime classified by police
as a major crime against persons, such as
murder, rape, and assault. There are at least
two reasons for the discrepancy between the
behavioral scientists’ focus and the criminologists’ focus. First, the criminological focus is
based more heavily on the consequences of a
specific action, whereas the behavioral science
focus is almost exclusively based on the intention behind the action. Understanding the
causes of violent behavior requires this focus
on intentions rather than on whether the
person succeeded in harming the individual
and was subsequently caught. Second, not
only is it much more difficult and expensive to
do research on violent crime because it is
Despite many reports that
exposure to violent media is
a causal risk factor, the U.S.
public remains largely
unaware of these risks,
and youth exposure to
violent media remains
extremely high.
relatively rare (thereby requiring huge sample
sizes), but also certain types of research, such
as experimental studies, would be unethical.
For these reasons, we focus on aggressive and
violent behavior, though we cite violent crime
data where useful.
Violent Behavior: The Scope of
the Problem
Youth violence resulting in deaths and injuries has direct and indirect costs in excess of
$158 billion each year. Only accidental injury
(frequently auto accidents) consistently leads
homicide as the cause of death of U.S. youths
VOL. 18 / NO. 1 / S PR ING 2008
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Soledad Liliana Escobar-Chaves and Craig A. Anderson
Figure 6. Share of College Freshmen Reporting Having Played Video Games More Than 15 and
More Than 20 Hours Per Week During 12th Grade, by Year and Sex, 1998–2006
Percent playing video games more than 15, 20 hours per week
7
6
5
Males >15
4
Males >20
3
Females >15
2
Females >20
1
0
1998
1999
2000
2001
2002
2003
2004
2005
2006
Source: Cooperative Institutional Research Program Survey results, 1998–2006. Higher Education Research Institute, University of
California–Los Angeles.
between one and twenty-four years of age.113
For youths between the ages of ten and
twenty-four, homicide is the leading cause
of death for African Americans, the second
leading cause for Hispanics.114
Young people not only suffer but also commit
a disproportionate share of violence. Although
twelve- to twenty-year-olds made up about 13
percent of the U.S. population in 2005, they
were responsible for some 28 percent of the
single-offender and 41 percent of multipleoffender violent crimes.115 Figure 5 displays
the overall U.S. assault rates and six twelfthgrade violence prevalence rates between
1982 and 2003. U.S. assault rates rose dramatically from the early 1980s to the early
1990s and then, just as dramatically, fell.
Other overall rates for violent crime, such as
homicide, show the same pattern. One factor
that likely contributed to this rise and fall was
changes in the share of the U.S. population in
the high-violence age range.
Although rates of youth violence also
increased during the late 1980s and early
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T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
1990s, they have not fallen in recent years. In
fact, the youth violence indicators in figure 5
show considerable stability over time; several
appear to be increasing.116
Media Exposure and Aggressive
and Violent Behavior
The extent to which media violence causes
youth aggression and violence has been hotly
debated for more than fifty years. Despite
many reports that exposure to violent media
is a causal risk factor, the U.S. public remains
largely unaware of these risks, and youth
exposure to violent media remains extremely
high. Among the public advisories that have
been generally ignored are congressional
hearings in 1954, U.S. surgeon general
reports in 1972 and 2001, a National Institute
of Mental Health report in 1982, and a Federal Trade Commission report in 2000. In
addition to government studies, reports have
been issued by scientific organizations such as
the American Psychological Association (in
1994, 2000, and 2005), the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of
Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the
Media and Risky Behaviors
American Medical Association, the American
Academy of Family Physicians, and the
American Psychiatric Association.
The most recent thorough review of the
research on media violence, by an expert
panel convened by the U.S. surgeon general,
concluded, “Research on violent television
and films, video games, and music reveals
unequivocal evidence that media violence
increases the likelihood of aggressive and
violent behavior in both immediate and
long-term contexts.” 117 Hundreds of original
empirical studies of the link between media
violence and aggression have been conducted, and numerous reviews of those
studies—both narrative and statistical—have
come to the same conclusion. Indeed, one
analysis found clear evidence that exposure to
media violence increases aggressive behavior
as early as 1975.118
The newest form of media violence—violent
video games played on computers, video
game consoles, handheld systems, the Internet, and even cell phones—also is the fastest
growing. Although most youth still spend
more time each week watching TV, including
movies, than playing video games, the time
they spend with video games is increasing
rapidly, and a growing share of youth is spending many hours playing video games. For
example, about 90 percent of U.S. youth aged
eight to eighteen play video games, with boys
averaging about nineteen hours a week.119
Annual surveys of college freshmen over time
reveal that as twelfth graders they spend
ever-increasing amounts of time playing video
games. The finding is especially true for boys,
as shown in figure 6.120
We review evidence on the link between
youth violence and violence on television and
film and on video games. We could find no
studies on the effects of violence in advertising on aggressive or violent behavior, but the
effects of such violent content are likely to
be similar.
Television and Movie Violence
and Violent Behavior
Television and movie violence are the most
extensively researched forms of media
violence. Studies using all three major
research designs have all reached the same
conclusion—exposure to television and movie
violence increases aggression and violence.
Experimental studies have shown that even a
single exposure increases aggression in the
immediate situation. For example, Kaj
Bjorkqvist randomly assigned one group of
five- to six-year-old Finnish children to watch
violent movies, another to watch nonviolent
ones. Raters who did not know which type of
movie the children had seen then observed
them playing together in a room. Children
who had just watched the violent movie were
rated much higher on physical assault and
other types of aggression.121 Other experiments have shown that exposure to media
violence can increase aggressive thinking,
aggressive emotions, and tolerance for
aggression, all known risk factors for later
aggressive and violent behavior.
Many cross-sectional studies have examined
whether people who view many violent TV
shows and movies also tend to behave more
aggressively. Such studies generally find
significant positive correlations. For example,
one group of researchers studied the links
between “aggressive behavioral delinquency,”
such as fighting and hitting, and TV violence
viewing in samples of Wisconsin and Maryland high school and junior high school students. They found significant positive links
between TV violence exposure and aggression
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Soledad Liliana Escobar-Chaves and Craig A. Anderson
for both boys and girls.122 Another research
team reported 49 percent more violent acts in
the past six months by heavy viewers of TV
violence than by light viewers.123
Researchers also have used longitudinal studies to investigate television violence effects,
using time periods that range from less than
one year to fifteen years. One research team
studied a group of six- to ten-year-olds over
fifteen years. They found that both boys and
girls who viewed television violence committed more aggression (physical, verbal,
and indirect) during young adulthood. The
study found the same link when the outcome
examined was outright physical violence, such
as punching, beating, choking, threatening,
or attacking with a knife or gun. This media
violence study is one of the few to include
measures of violent crime. Because it is a
well-conducted longitudinal study, it lends
considerable strength to the view of media
violence as a causal risk factor for aggression,
violence, and violent crime. Interestingly,
although frequent exposure to TV violence
during childhood was linked to high levels
of adulthood aggression, high aggressiveness
during childhood did not lead to frequent
viewing of television violence in adulthood.124
Violent Video Games and
Violent Behavior
The most popular video games played by
youth contain violence. Even children’s
games (as designated by the industrysponsored Entertainment Software Ratings
Board) are likely to contain violence. More
than 30 percent of games rated “E” (suitable
for everyone) contain a violence descriptor;
more than 90 percent of “E10+” games (suitable for those ten years and older) contain
a violence descriptor.125 About 70 percent
of fourth to twelfth graders report playing
“Mature”-rated games (suitable for those
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T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
seventeen and older), which contain the most
graphic violence of all.126
Research on video game violence is less
extensive than that on TV and film violence,
but the findings are essentially the same.
Experimental studies in field and laboratory
settings generally find that brief exposure
to violent video games increases aggressive
thoughts, feelings, and behavior. For example, one laboratory study assigned children
and college students randomly to play either
a children’s video game that involved shooting cartoon-like characters or a nonviolent
children’s video game. Later, all participants
completed a standard laboratory task that
measures physical aggression. Those who had
played the violent children’s game displayed
a 40 percent higher aggression rate than
those who had played a nonviolent game.
The effect was the same for both elementary
school children and college students.127 In
a field experiment, children were randomly
assigned to play either a violent or nonviolent video game and then were observed by
trained coders during a free-play period. The
children who had played the violent game
displayed significantly more physical aggression than those who had played a nonviolent
game.128
To date, the only published longitudinal study
that clearly delineates the possible influence
of violent video games used a relatively short
time span of six months. The researchers
conducting the study assessed the media
habits and aggressive tendencies of elementary school children, as well as a host of
control variables, twice within a school year.
The children who were heavily exposed to
video game violence early in the school year
became relatively more physically aggressive
by the end of the year, as measured by peers,
teachers, and self-reports.129 Cross-sectional
Media and Risky Behaviors
Violent Behavior: Summary
Figure 7. Risk Factors for Youth Violence,
Based on Longitudinal Evidence
Gang membership
Poor parent-child relations
Male
Physical violence
TELEVISION VIOLENCE
Antisocial parents
Low IQ
Broken home
Poverty
Abusive parents
Substance abuse
0
0.1
0.2
0.3
0.4
Longitudinal effect size, r
Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Youth Violence: A Report of the Surgeon General (Rockville, Md.:
U.S. Government Printing Office, 2001); L. Rowell Huesmann
and others, “Longitudinal Relations between Children’s Exposure to TV Violence and Their Aggressive and Violent Behavior
in Young Adulthood: 1977–92,” Developmental Psychology 39
(2003): 201–221.
studies have also found positive correlations
between exposure to violent video games and
various forms of aggression, including violent
behavior and violent crimes.130
All three types of studies have also linked
violent video games to a host of additional
aggression-related cognitive, emotional, and
behavioral outcomes. Outcomes include
more positive attitudes toward violence,
increased use of aggressive words or solutions
to hypothetical problems, quicker recognition
of facial anger, increased self-perception as
being aggressive, increased feelings of anger
and revenge motives, decreased sensitivity
to scenes and images of real violence, and
changes in brain function associated with
lower executive control and heightened
emotion.131
The research evidence shows clearly that
media violence is a causal risk factor for
aggressive and violent behavior. There is
considerably less evidence concerning violent crimes, but the few cross-sectional and
longitudinal studies that included violent
crime measures also found similar links
with media violence. The size of the media
violence effect is as large as or larger than
that of many factors commonly accepted by
public policymakers and the general public as valid risk factors for violent behavior.
Figure 7 illustrates the current best estimates
of several risk factors for youth violence.
The figure does not include the longitudinal
violent video game effect because the one
relevant study did not include a specific
measure of violence that is comparable to
the other factors. However, several studies
have directly compared video game and TV
violence using the same participants and the
same measures; they generally find a somewhat larger effect for video games. Thus, we
expect that the effect of violent video games
on long-term violence will be larger than
that of TV violence and smaller than that of
gang membership. Furthermore, it is likely
that overall media violence exposure has a
somewhat larger effect than any individual
type of media violence. In any case, the figure
makes clear that media violence exposure has
a larger effect on later violent behavior than
does substance use, abusive parents, poverty,
living in a broken home, or having low IQ.132
Conclusions
Media have a very powerful influence on
health behavior. The leading causes of youth
morbidity and mortality today are the outcomes of health risk behaviors that have been
linked with media exposure, including excessive caloric intake, physical inactivity, smoking,
underage drinking, early sexual initiation, and
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Soledad Liliana Escobar-Chaves and Craig A. Anderson
violent behavior. The largest and most well
developed research literature concerns the
effects of one type of media content on one
type of risky health behavior —the effect of
media violence on aggressive and violent
behavior. That link is very strong, clearly
causal, and surprisingly large. The links
between media consumption and smoking
and alcohol use also are strong and there is
good evidence that they are causal. Although
there are good theoretical reasons to expect
media exposure effects on obesity and on
early sexual initiation, and although there is
some supportive research for each of these
risky health behaviors, there currently is too
little high-quality research to make it possible
to say whether the links are causal.
To better understand the effect of the media
on youth risk behavior, researchers will have
to develop comprehensive explanatory models
that include socioeconomic and cultural
variables. One promising model, the prototype-willingness model of risk behavior,
assumes two primary pathways to risk behaviors, one that is reasoned and one that is more
spontaneous and opportunistic. Analysts have
long understood the reasoned pathway, which
involves a person’s carefully considered expectations of the likely outcome of the risk behavior and the value placed on the likely outcome.
The unique aspect of the model is the second,
more spontaneous pathway, which indeed
seems to be a common route traveled by
youths on their way to the onset of risky
health behaviors. Work on this second pathway has yielded three key insights. First,
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T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
much risk behavior involves a reaction to
favorable social circumstances rather than a
preplanned event. Second, because these
circumstances are social and public, they are
associated (in the minds of youths) with clear
images of what the behavior is, what the risks
and benefits are, and what kinds of people
engage in the behavior. Third, these images
have a huge impact on the spur-of-themoment decision to engage (or to refuse to
engage) in the risk behavior.133 Researchers
have applied this model successfully to a
number of adolescent risk behaviors, including smoking, alcohol consumption, and sexual
behaviors. Of particular importance for our
purpose is that a major source of the risk
behavior images in this model is likely to be
media exposure to the behaviors. One need
only recall the impact of the image of the
Marlboro Man or Joe Camel to get an intuitive feel for how media images can influence
snap decisions to engage in risky behavior.
Finally, we note that what may be part of the
problem could instead become part of the
solution. As noted by Douglas Evans in his
article in this volume, electronic media have
been used in positive ways, leading to positive
health behavior outcomes. Therefore, channeling creative energy into positive mass
media content could well help to reduce the
health risk behavior rates, particularly among
adolescents. A thorough understanding of the
nature of the media impact on health and
well-being is a vital component of the public
health agenda in the United States.
Media and Risky Behaviors
Endnotes
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3. C. A. Anderson, D. A. Gentile, and K. E. Buckley, Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents: Theory, Research, and Public Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007). See chapter 2 for
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Media and Risky Behaviors
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35. Ibid.; S. E. Linn, “Food Marketing to Children in the Context of a Marketing Maelstrom,” Journal of
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Psychology and Marketing 21, no. 9 (2004): 697–713.
37. Institute of Medicine, Food Marketing to Children and Youth (see note 17).
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(2004): s6–7.
39. E. A. Vandewater, M. S. Shim, and A. G. Caplovitz, “Linking Obesity and Activity Level with Children’s
Television and Video Game Use,” Journal of Adolescence 27, no. 1 (2004): 71–85.
40. B. S. Bulik, “Arcade Craze Swings into Living Room,” Advertising Age 75 (2004): 3–52.
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41. X. Wang and A. C. Perry, “Metabolic and Physiologic Responses to Video Game Play in 7- to 10-Year-Old
Boys,” Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 160, no. 4 (2006): 411–15.
42. Bulik, “Arcade Craze Swings into Living Room” (see note 40).
43. West Virginia University, “Konami’s Dance Dance Revolution Provides Health Benefits to Children of
West Virginia [press release],” 2007. Available from http://wvutoday.wvu.edu/news/page/5213.
44. S. B. Kretchmer, “Advertainment: The Evolution of Product Placement as a Mass Media Marketing
Strategy,” Journal of Promotion Management 10 (2004): 37–54.
45. Linn, “Food Marketing to Children” (see note 35); Kretchmer, “Advertainment” (see note 44); M. Story
and S. French, “Food Advertising and Marketing Directed at Children and Adolescents in the U.S.,”
International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. Available from www.ijbnpa.org/
content/1/1/3; S. Calvert, “Future Faces of Selling to Children,” in The Faces of Televisual Media, edited
by E. L. Palmer and B. M. Young (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Earlbaum Assoc., 2003), pp. 347–57.
46. Anderson and Butcher, “Childhood Obesity” (see note 6).
47. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Healthy People 2010” (Washington, D.C., 2007).
Available from www.healthypeople.gov/Document/tableofcontents.htm.
48. U.S. Surgeon General, “Preventing Tobacco Use among Young People: A Report of the Surgeon General,”
S/N 017-001-00491-0 (Atlanta, Ga.: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for
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49. A. H. Mokdad and others, “Actual Causes of Death in the United States, 2000,” JAMA: Journal of the
American Medical Association 291, no. 10 (2004): 1238–45; “Perspectives in Disease Prevention and
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50. “Annual Smoking-Attributable Mortality, Years of Potential Life Lost, and Economic Costs—United
States, 1995–1999,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 51, no. 14 (2002): 300–03.
51. “Annual Smoking-Attributable Mortality, Years of Potential Life Lost, and Productivity Losses—United
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52. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Office of Applied Studies, “Results from the
2005 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings” (Rockville, Md., 2007). Available from
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53. D. K. Eaton and others, “Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance—United States, 2005,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report Surveillance Summaries 55, no. 5 (2006): 1–108.
54. J. R. DiFranza and others, “RJR Nabisco’s Cartoon Camel Promotes Camel Cigarettes to Children,”
JAMA: Journal of the American Medical Association 266, no. 22 (1991): 3149–53; D. G. Altman and others,
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55. Federal Trade Commission, “Cigarette Report for 2003.” Available from www.ftc.gov/reports/
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56. Ibid.
57. J. P. Pierce and others, “Tobacco Industry Promotion of Cigarettes and Adolescent Smoking,” JAMA:
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58. W. S. Choi and others, “Progression to Established Smoking: the Influence of Tobacco Marketing,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 22, no. 4 (2002): 228–33.
59. L. Biener and M. Siegel, “Tobacco Marketing and Adolescent Smoking: More Support for a Causal
Inference,” American Journal of Public Health 90, no. 3 (2000): 407–11.
60. DiFranza, “RJR Nabisco’s Cartoon Camel” (see note 54); J. J. Arnett, “Adolescents’ Responses to Cigarette
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Items in Public Schools,” Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 151, no. 12 (1997): 1189–96; D.
M. Straub and others, “Effects of Pro- and Anti-Tobacco Advertising on Nonsmoking Adolescents’ Intentions to Smoke,” Journal of Adolescent Health 32, no. 1 (2003): 36–43; J. B. Unger, C. A. Johnson, and L. A.
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61. P. P. Gidwani and others, “Television Viewing and Initiation of Smoking among Youth,” Pediatrics 110, no.
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Tobacco Research 7, no. 3 (2005): 381–85.
63. R. H. DuRant and others, “Tobacco and Alcohol Use Behaviors Portrayed in Music Videos: A Content
Analysis,” American Journal of Public Health 87, no. 7 (1997): 1131–35.
64. S. A. Glantz, K. W. Kacirk, and C. McCulloch, “Back to the Future: Smoking in Movies in 2002 Compared
with 1950 Levels,” American Journal of Public Health 94, no. 2 (2004): 261–63.
65. A. O. Goldstein, R. A. Sobel, and G. R. Newman, “Tobacco and Alcohol Use in G-Rated Children’s
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66. “Tobacco Use, Access, and Exposure to Tobacco in Media among Middle and High School Students—
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67. C. Pechmann and C. Shih, “Smoking Scenes in Movies and Antismoking Advertisements before Movies:
Effects on Youth,” Journal of Marketing 63, no. 3 (1999): 1–13.
68. M. A. Dalton and others, “Effect of Viewing Smoking in Movies on Adolescent Smoking Initiation: A
Cohort Study,” Lancet 362, no. 9380 (2003): 281–85.
69. J. M. Distefan, J. P. Pierce, and E. A. Gilpin, “Do Favorite Movie Stars Influence Adolescent Smoking
Initiation?” American Journal of Public Health 94, no. 7 (2004): 1239–44.
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70. Thomas A. Wills and others, “Movie Exposure to Smoking Cues and Adolescent Smoking Onset: A Test
for Mediation through Peer Affiliations,” Health Psychology (2008).
71. National Center for Health Statistics, “Deaths–Leading Causes [preliminary data for 2004].” Available
from www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/lcod.htm.
72. Eaton and others, “Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance” (see note 53).
73. B. F. Grant and D. A. Dawson, “Age at Onset of Alcohol Use and Its Association with DSM-IV Alcohol
Abuse and Dependence: Results From the National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiologic Survey,” Journal
of Substance Abuse 9 (1997): 103–10; B. F. Grant, “The Impact of a Family History of Alcoholism on
the Relationship between Age at Onset of Alcohol Use and DSM-IV Alcohol Dependence: Results from
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74. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “WISQARS: Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System,” 2007. Available from www.cdc.gov/ncipc/wisqars/default.htm; F. J. Chaloupka, M. Grossman,
and H. Saffer, “The Effects of Price on Alcohol Consumption and Alcohol-Related Problems,” Alcohol
Research and Health 26, no. 1 (2002): 22–34.
75. T. R. Miller and others, “Societal Costs of Underage Drinking,” Journal of Studies on Alcohol 67, no. 4
(2006): 519–28.
76. Federal Trade Commission, “Alcohol Marketing and Advertising: A Report to Congress,” 2007. Available
from www.ftc.gov/os/2003/09/alcohol08report.pdf.
77. Ibid.; Federal Trade Commission, “Self-Regulation in the Alcohol Industry: A Review of Industry Efforts
to Promote Alcohol to Underage Consumers,” 2003. Available from www.ftc.gov/reports/alcohol/alcohol
report.shtm.
78. N. Signorielli, Mass Media Images and Impact on Health: A Sourcebook (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood
Press, 1993); J. W. Grube and L. Wallack, “Television Beer Advertising and Drinking: Knowledge, Beliefs,
and Intentions among Schoolchildren,” American Journal of Public Health 84, no. 2 (1994): 254–59.
79. V. C. Strasburger and B. J. Wilson, Children, Adolescents, and the Media (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage,
2002); J. D. Sargent and others, “Alcohol Use in Motion Pictures and Its Relation with Early-Onset Teen
Drinking,” Journal of Studies on Alcohol 67, no. 1 (2006): 54–65; S. A. Everett, R. L. Schnuth, and J. L.
Tribble, “Tobacco and Alcohol Use in Top-Grossing American Films,” Journal of Community Health 23,
no. 4 (1998): 317–24; Arnett, “Adolescents’ Responses to Cigarette Advertisements” (see note 60).
80. Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth, “Clicking with Kids: Alcohol Marketing and Youth on the Internet,” 2004. Available from http://camy.org/research/internet0304/report-low.pdf.
81. C. F. Garfield, P. J. Chung, and P. J. Rathouz, “Alcohol Advertising in Magazines and Adolescent Readership,” JAMA: Journal of the American Medical Association 289, no. 18 (2003): 2424–29.
82. Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth, “Overexposed: Youth a Target of Alcohol Advertising in Magazines,” 2002. Available from http://camy.org/research/files/overexposed0902.pdf.
83. V. C. Strasburger, “Alcohol Advertising and Adolescents,” Pediatric Clinics of North America 49, no. 2
(2002): 353–76.
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84. Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth, “Still Growing After All These Years: Youth Exposure to Alcohol
Ads on TV 2001–2005,” 2006. Available from http://camy.org/research/tv1206.
85. A. W. Stacy and others, “Exposure to Televised Alcohol Ads and Subsequent Adolescent Alcohol Use,”
American Journal of Health Behavior 28, no. 6 (2004): 498–509.
86. R. L. Collins and others, “Early Adolescent Exposure to Alcohol Advertising and Its Relationship to
Underage Drinking,” Journal of Adolescent Health 40, no. 6 (2007): 527–34.
87. G. M. Connolly and others, “Alcohol in the Mass Media and Drinking by Adolescents: A Longitudinal
Study,” Addiction 89, no. 10 (1994): 1255–63.
88. P. L. Ellickson and others, “Does Alcohol Advertising Promote Adolescent Drinking? Results from a
Longitudinal Assessment,” Addiction 100, no. 2 (2005): 235–46.
89. T. N. Robinson, H. L. Chen, and J. D. Killen, “Television and Music Video Exposure and Risk of
Adolescent Alcohol Use,” Pediatrics 102, no. 5 (1998): E54.
90. K. M. Thompson and F. Yokota, “Depiction of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Substances in G-Rated
Animated Feature Films,” Pediatrics 107, no. 6 (2001): 1369–74.
91. Goldstein, Sobel, and Newman, “Tobacco and Alcohol Use” (see note 65).
92. Everett, Schnuth, and Tribble, “Tobacco and Alcohol Use in Top-Grossing American Films” (see note 79).
93. Office of National Drug Control Policy and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, “Substance Use in Popular Movies and Music,” 2007. Available from www.mediacampaign.org/publications/
movies/movie_toc.html.
94. Sargent and others, “Alcohol Use in Motion Pictures” (see note 79).
95. C. E. Kaestle and others, “Young Age at First Sexual Intercourse and Sexually Transmitted Infections
in Adolescents and Young Adults,” American Journal of Epidemiology 161, no. 8 (2005): 774–80; A. L.
Coker and others, “Correlates and Consequences of Early Initiation of Sexual Intercourse,” Journal of
School Health 64, no. 9 (1994): 372–77; C. M. Flanigan, “Sexual Activity among Girls Under Age 15:
Findings from the National Survey of Family Growth,” in 14 and Younger: The Sexual Behavior of Young
Adolescents, edited by B. Albert, S. Brown, and C. M. Flanigan (Washington, D.C.: National Campaign to
Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 2003), pp. 57–64.
96. Coker and others, “Correlates and Consequences of Early Initiation of Sexual Intercourse” (see note 95);
Flanigan, “Sexual Activity among Girls Under Age 15” (see note 95); L. O’Donnell, C. R. O’Donnell, and
A. Stueve, “Early Sexual Initiation and Subsequent Sex-Related Risks among Urban Minority Youth: The
Reach for Health Study,” Family Planning Perspectives 33, no. 6 (2001): 268–75; J. S. Santelli and others,
“Multiple Sexual Partners among U.S. Adolescents and Young Adults,” Family Planning Perspectives 30,
no. 6 (1998): 271–75. Available from www.guttmacher.org/pubs/journals/3027198.html. S. Philliber and M.
Carrera, “Sexual Behavior among Young Teens in Disadvantaged Areas of Seven Cities,” in 14 and Younger:
The Sexual Behavior of Young Adolescents, edited by Albert, Brown, and Flanigan (Washington, D.C.:
National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 2003), pp. 103–06.
97. H. Weinstock, S. Berman, and W. Cates Jr., “Sexually Transmitted Diseases among American Youth: Incidence and Prevalence Estimates, 2000,” Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 36, no. 1 (2004):
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6–10. Available from www.guttmacher.org/pubs/journals/3600604.html. H. W. Chesson and others, “The
Estimated Direct Medical Cost of Sexually Transmitted Diseases among American Youth, 2000,” Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 36, no. 1 (2004): 11–19.
98. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health
Promotion, “YRBSS: Youth Online: Comprehensive Results,” 2006. Available from http://apps.nccd.cdc.
gov/yrbss/HealthTopic.asp.
99. L. G. Whalen and others, “Middle School Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 2003,” 2006. Available from www.
cdc.gov/healthyyouth/yrbs/middleschool2003/index.htm.
100. H. G. Pope and others, “The Growing Commercial Value of the Male Body: A Longitudinal Survey of
Advertising in Women’s Magazines,” Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics 70, no. 4 (2001): 189–92.
101. S. L. Escobar-Chaves and others, “Impact of the Media on Adolescent Sexual Attitudes and Behaviors,”
Pediatrics 116, no. 1 (2005): 303–26.
102. G. M. Wingood and others, “Exposure to X-Rated Movies and Adolescents’ Sexual and ContraceptiveRelated Attitudes and Behaviors,” Pediatrics 107, no. 5 (2001): 1116–19.
103. D. Kunkel and others, “Sex on TV 3: A Biennial Report to the Kaiser Family Foundation,” Publication
3325, 2003. Available from www.kff.org/entmedia/3325-index.cfm.
104. J. L. Peterson, K. A. Moore, and F. F. Furstenberg Jr., “Television Viewing and Early Initiation of Sexual
Intercourse: Is There a Link?” Journal of Homosexuality 21, no. 1–2 (1991): 93–118.
105. R. L. Collins and others, “Watching Sex on Television Predicts Adolescent Initiation of Sexual Behavior,”
Pediatrics 114, no. 3 (2004): e280–89.
106. J. D. Brown and S. F. Newcomer, “Television Viewing and Adolescents’ Sexual Behavior,” Journal of
Homosexuality 21, no. 1-2 (1991): 77–91; C. J. Pardun, K. L. L’Engle, and J. D. Brown, “Linking Exposure
to Outcomes: Early Adolescents’ Consumption of Sexual Content in Six Media,” Mass Communication
and Society 8, no. 2 (2005): 75–91.
107. J. Bryant and S. C. Rockwell, “Effects of Massive Exposure to Sexually-Oriented Primetime Television
Programming on Adolescents’ Moral Judgment,” in Media, Children, and the Family: Social Scientific,
Psychodynamic, and Clinical Perspectives, edited by J. Zillman, J. Bryant, and A. C. Huston (Hillsdale,
N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1994), pp. 183–95; S. Davis and M.-L. Mares, “Effects of Talk Show Viewing on
Adolescents,” Journal of Communication 48, no. 3 (1998): 69–86; L. E. Greeson and R. A. Williams, “Social
Implications of Music Videos on Youth: An Analysis of the Content and Effects of MTV,” Youth and Society
18, no. 2 (1986): 177–89.
108. Bryant and Rockwell, “Effects of Massive Exposure” (see note 107).
109. Greeson and Williams, “Social Implications of Music Videos” (see note 107).
110. J. S. Strouse, N. Buerkel-Rothfuss, and E. C. J. Long, “Gender and Family as Moderators of the Relationship between Music Video Exposure and Adolescent Sexual Permissiveness,” Adolescence 30, no. 119
(1995): 505–21.
111. Roberts, Foehr, and Rideout, Generation M (see note 2).
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112. S. C. Martino and others, “Exposure to Degrading Versus Nondegrading Music Lyrics and Sexual Behavior
among Youth,” Pediatrics 118, no. 2 (2006): e430–41.
113. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Youth Violence: Fact Sheet,” 2007. Available from www.cdc.
gov/ncipc/factsheets/yvfacts.htm.
114. Ibid.
115. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Criminal Victimization in the United States,
2005 Statistical Tables.” Available from www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/abstract/cvusst.htm.
116. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics Online:
31st edition, 2003,” 2007. Available from www.albany.edu/sourcebook/.
117. C. A. Anderson and others, “The Influence of Media Violence on Youth,” Psychological Science in the
Public Interest 4, no. 3 (2003): 81–110. Available from www.psychologicalscience.org/journals/index.cfm?j
ournal=pspi&content=pspi/4_3.
118. B. J. Bushman and C. A. Anderson, “Media Violence and the American Public: Scientific Facts versus
Media Misinformation,” American Psychologist 56, no. 6–7 (2001): 477–89.
119. D. A. Gentile, M. Saleem, and C. A. Anderson, “Public Policy and the Effects of Media Violence on
Children,” Social Issues and Policy Review 1, no. 1 (2007): 15–61; S. Martin and K. Oppenheim, “Video
Gaming: General and Pathological Use [newsletter article],” 2007. Available from www.harrisinteractive.
com/news/newsletters/k12news/HI_TrendsTudes_2007_v06_i03.pdf.
120. UCLA Higher Education Research Institute, “CIRP [Cooperative Institutional Research Program] Freshman Survey,” 2007. Available from www.gseis.ucla.edu/heri/cirpoverview.php.
121. K. Kaj Bjorkqvist, Violent Films, Anxiety, and Aggression (Helsinki: Finnish Society of Sciences and Letters,
1985).
122. G. A. Comstock and E. A. Rubinstein, Television and Social Behavior, vol. 3, Television and Adolescent
Aggressiveness, DHEW Publication HSM 72-9058 (Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office,
1985).
123. W. A. Belson, Television Violence and the Adolescent Boy (Westmead, United Kingdom: Saxon House,
Teakfield, 1972).
124. L. R. Huesmann and others, “Longitudinal Relations between Children’s Exposure to TV Violence and
Their Aggressive and Violent Behavior in Young Adulthood: 1977–1992,” Developmental Psychology 39,
no. 2 (2003): 201–21.
125. D. A. Gentile, “The Rating Systems for Media Products,” in Handbook on Children and Media, edited by
S. Calvert and B. Wilson (Praeger, 2007).
126. D. Walsh and others, “Tenth Annual MediaWise Video Game Report Card,” 2007. Available from www.
mediafamily.org/research/report_vgrc_2005.shtml.
127. Anderson, Gentile, and Buckley, Violent Video Game Effects (see note 3).
128. A. R. Irwin and A. M. Gross, “Cognitive Tempo, Violent Video Games, and Aggressive Behavior in Young
Boys,” Journal of Family Violence 10, no. 3 (1995): 337–50.
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129. Ibid.
130. Anderson, Gentile, and Buckley, Violent Video Game Effects (see note 123).
131. E. L. Swing and C. A. Anderson, “The Unintended Negative Consequences of Exposure to Violent Video
Games,” Cognitive Technology 12 (2007): 3–13.
132. Huesmann and others, “Longitudinal Relations” (see note 124); Anderson, Gentile, and Buckley, Violent
Video Game Effects (see note 3); Office of the Surgeon General, “Youth Violence: A Report of the
Surgeon General,” 2004. Available from www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/youthviolence/toc.html.
133. Frederick X. Gibbons, Meg Gerrard, and David J. Lane, “A Social Reaction Model of Adolescent Health
Risk,” in Social Psychological Foundations of Health and Illness, edited by J. M. Suls and K. A. Wallston
(Oxford, England: Blackwell, 2003), pp. 107–36.
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Social Marketing Campaigns and Children’s Media Use
Social Marketing Campaigns and
Children’s Media Use
W. Douglas Evans
Summary
Media-related commercial marketing aimed at promoting the purchase of products and services by children, and by adults for children, is ubiquitous and has been associated with negative health consequences such as poor nutrition and physical inactivity. But, as Douglas Evans
points out, not all marketing in the electronic media is confined to the sale of products. Increasingly savvy social marketers have begun to make extensive use of the same techniques and strategies used by commercial marketers to promote healthful behaviors and to counter some of the
negative effects of conventional media marketing to children and adolescents.
Evans points out that social marketing campaigns have been effective in helping to prevent and
control tobacco use, increase physical activity, improve nutrition, and promote condom use, as
well as other positive health behaviors. He reviews the evidence from a number of major recent
campaigns and programming in the United States and overseas and describes the evaluation
and research methods used to determine their effectiveness.
He begins his review of the field of social marketing by describing how it uses many of the
strategies practiced so successfully in commercial market­ing. He notes the recent development
of public health brands and the use of branding as a health promotion strategy. He then goes on
to show how social marketing can promote healthful behavior, how it can counter media messages about unhealthful behavior, and how it can encourage discussions between parents and
children.
Evans concludes by noting some potential future applications to promote healthful media use
by children and adolescents and to mitigate the effects of expo­sure to commercial marketing.
These include adapting lessons learned from previous successful campaigns, such as delivering
branded messages that promote healthful alternative behaviors. Evans also outlines a message
strategy to promote “smart media use” to parents, children, and adolescents and suggests a
brand based on personal interaction as a desirable alternative to “virtual interaction.”
www.futureofchildren.org
W. Douglas Evans is vice president for public health and environment at RTI International.
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181
C
W. Douglas Evans
ommercial marketing is central to the American, indeed
the global, economy. Since the
early twentieth century, marketing strategies have grown
in reach and influence as media channels have
proliferated and people’s exposure to media
has increased. At its core, marketing is about
an exchange of value between the marketer
and consumer. If the marketer can promote
a product or service to make the consumer
perceive sufficient value, the consumer is
more likely to purchase it. In the past thirtyfive years, marketers have begun to use the
same powerful idea in a new way—not to sell
products and services but to promote socially
beneficial causes and behaviors. A growing
body of evidence shows that marketing is
highly effective in this arena as well.
Marketing is perhaps best exemplified by the
strategy of “branding” products, services,
organizations, and ideas. Brands, recognition
of brands, and the relationship between brand
and consumer largely explain the tremendous
success of product advertising and the growth
of the American and global consumer economy over the past century. Marketers use
brands to build relationships that enhance the
value of products and services for consumers.
By providing additional value for consumers,
brands can instill a sense of loyalty and
identification that causes consumers to
continue purchasing the branded products
and services over competitors. Brands project
a personality with which consumers identify
and seek to associate themselves through
owning and using the branded products and
services.1 Very much like reputations, brands
precede the individual or organization and
shape how the world responds.
In this article, I examine social marketing and
its use of commercial marketing principles to
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promote health behavior change. I argue
that, like commercial marketers, social
marketers create value for target audiences
through their own form of branding—by
creating positive associations with health
behaviors and encouraging their adoption
and maintenance. Social marketers also use
market research to identify attitudes and
beliefs among their target audiences that may
support or inhibit the intended behavior
change—increasing exercise or using a
condom, for example. They apply audience
segmentation techniques to develop targeted
(to a group) and tailored (to an individual)
messages and promotional activities.
Substantial evidence, especially from subject
areas such as tobacco control, nutrition and
physical activity, and HIV/AIDS, suggests
that social marketing can change health behavior and is a broadly effective social-change
strategy that can be applied in other subject
areas as well. Well-funded social marketing
campaigns, such as the American Legacy
Foundation’s truth campaign, have demonstrated robust effect sizes and have had major
population-level effects on health behavior,
morbidity, and mortality.2 The challenge for
social marketers is to compete successfully
in a media-saturated environment against
better-funded commercial marketers and
their often unhealthful commercial messages for products such as junk and fast food,
tobacco, and alcohol.
After discussing the evidence that social marketing works, I turn to the question of how
it works. As noted, social marketing applies
the central marketing strategy of building
positive relationships with the audience to
increase the value of promoted behaviors
and to encourage exchange in the form of
behavior adoption. Many social marketing
campaigns have used branding to meet the
Social Marketing Campaigns and Children’s Media Use
competition head-on. The anti-tobacco use
truth campaign, for example, developed
behavioral alternatives and creative branded
messaging to counter its competition, tobacco
industry advertising. The approach used in
truth and other anti-tobacco use campaigns
is often called “countermarketing.” Countermarketing campaign advertisements provide
behavioral alternatives to smoking, such as
rebelling against industry manipulation and
expressing independent thinking, thereby
outdoing the industry’s own marketing of
cigarettes as hip and cool products. Similar
approaches have been developed in nutrition, physical activity, and HIV/AIDS social
marketing.
Social marketing has also
been used to promote better
parent-child communication
and improved family health.
Social marketing in fields such as these can
target not only individual behavior, but also
public policy. Social marketing in tobacco
control, for example, has been used to
promote policy change and new legislation,
leading to changes in social norms and the
acceptability of smoking.3 Public health organizations use branding strategies to promote
social mobilization and to influence public
debate and opinion.4 Whether to focus on
individual behavior or larger policy issues
involves a strategic decision by the social marketing campaign based on available resources
and competition for public attention.
Social marketing has also been used to
promote behaviors such as better parentchild communication and improved family
health. Many social marketing messages, such
as nutrition and physical activity messages
promoted by the 1% Or Less milk campaign
and the 5-4-3-2-1 Go! campaign in Chicago,
have targeted parents to encourage them to
change the home health environment and
talk to their children about health behaviors.5
These efforts also use relationship-building
strategies, and many have used community
outreach as well as mass media components
for a multi-channel message strategy.
These strategies have clear applications to
children’s media use and the effects of advertising on children’s health behavior. Marketers have the ability to reach parents of young
children and adolescents with targeted social
marketing campaigns aimed at changing
social norms about media use. They can promote “smart”—limited in time and self-aware
in terms of influences—media use and a culture of parental involvement with messages
that vary by children’s stage of development.
At the same time, marketers are able to target
adolescents with messages to promote “smart”
media use and brand it as socially desirable
behavior. The evidence suggests that social
marketers would be most likely to succeed not
by demonizing media use but by competing
with media influences by providing appealing
behavioral alternatives. Using positive messages and imagery, they could promote
alternatives to media use—for example,
“branding” direct social interaction as cool and
hip. Such a strategy could lead to a culture of
more healthful engagement with, and understanding of, media and its influences.
Social Marketing
Social marketing uses the principles and
processes of commercial marketing, but not
with the aim of selling products and services.
Rather, the goal is to design and implement
programs to promote socially beneficial
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behavior change.6 In public health, social
marketing attempts to increase healthful behaviors in a population by using such proven
marketing techniques as market research to
understand audience attitudes and beliefs that
may affect behavior in response to a health
message. Social marketers analyze their competition and use persuasive techniques such
as creating social models to engage in the
promoted behavior. In some cases, marketers can even create messages tailored for
individuals using information about personal
preferences and behavior just as online and
direct mail commercial marketers do. In
recent years, social marketers have successfully branded such health behaviors as being
a nonsmoker, being physically active, or using
a condom in an effort to encourage those
behaviors.7
In this article, I review research on social
marketing to highlight its potential application to counter the flood of often unhealthful
commercial media marketing to which
American children and adolescents are
exposed, explore what is now being done on
these topics, and outline a future agenda for
research to enhance the impact of social
marketing as a protective factor in the lives of
children and adolescents. In the following
section, I explain how social marketing works.
Then I turn to address three main topics:
Table 1. Major Recent Social Marketing Campaigns
Campaign
Topic area
Research design
Location
Target audience
1% Or Less
1% milk consumption
Observational
California
Adults, parents, and
families
5-4-3-2-1 Go!
Nutrition and physical activity Experimental
promotion
Chicago
Parents and families
5-A-Day for Better Health
Fruit and vegetable consump- Observational
tion
United States
Adults, parents, and
families
Florida TRUTH
Tobacco countermarketing
Quasi-experimental
Florida
Adolescents and young
adults
Jalan Sesama
Educational entertainment
None
Indonesia
Youth
KNOW HIV/AIDS
HIV/AIDS awareness and
prevention
Observational
United States
Young adults
loveLife
HIV/AIDS awareness and
prevention
Observational
South Africa
Adolescents and young
adults
Massachusetts antitobacco campaign
Tobacco countermarketing
Quasi-experimental
Massachusetts
Adolescents (prevention) and adults (cessation)
Parents Speak Up
Reproductive health
Experimental
United States
Parents and families
Salama
HIV/AIDS awareness and
prevention
Observational
Tanzania
Adolescents and young
adults
Sisimpur
Educational entertainment
None
Bangladesh
Three- to six-year-olds
stand
Tobacco countermarketing
Quasi-experimental
Ohio
Adolescents and young
adults
The TV Boss
Children’s media use
Observational
United States
Parents
Trust
HIV/AIDS awareness and
prevention
Observational
Kenya
Adolescents and young
adults
truth
Tobacco countermarketing
Quasi-experimental
U.S.
Adolescents and young
adults
VERB: It’s What You Do
Physical activity promotion
Quasi-experimental
U.S.
Pre-adolescent children
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Social Marketing Campaigns and Children’s Media Use
how social marketing can promote healthful
behavior, how it can counter media messages
about unhealthful behavior, and how it can
encourage discussions between parents and
children.
How Social Marketing Works
Social marketing has been widely and successfully used to affect health and other social
behaviors related to children and adolescents.
Table 1 summarizes many of the major social
marketing campaigns conducted over the
past fifteen years.
Social marketing efforts aimed directly at
pre-adolescents or adolescents—exhorting
them not to start smoking, for example, or to
exercise regularly—have evolved in recent
years. During the 1980s and earlier, most
efforts focused on providing young people
with facts and information about health risks.
In tobacco control, school-based programs
aimed to equip adolescents with protective
intrapersonal and interpersonal skills to stay
tobacco-free in a social environment rich in
positive imagery encouraging tobacco use.8
Since the early 1990s, social marketing to
children and adolescents has begun directly
taking on the commercial marketing competition, countering unhealthful product
marketing and social messages and providing
young people with positive behavioral
alternatives.9
Social Modeling, Imagery, and
Environment
The concept of social modeling has long
been understood by psychologists and by
commercial marketers. In the work of Albert
Bandura, for example, social modeling plays
a central role in social learning and social
cognition; that is, the formation of knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs.10 In marketing,
social models embody the ideals promised
by an advertisement or a larger campaign.
For example, the Marlboro Man, so familiar
in commercials since the 1950s, provided an
appealing social model for the Marlboro cigarette’s target audience. Of late, social marketers have also made use of models, such as
the independent, rebellious youth featured
in the American Legacy Foundation’s truth
campaign.11
Imagery can be a powerful marketing tool
to help create an idealized social model and
thus promote product purchases and certain
kinds of behavior. The Marlboro Man riding
out on the range, the BMW driver cornering nimbly on a windy road, the truth campaign young adult confronting the tobacco
industry—all embody socially desirable,
idealized characteristics. Research has shown
that such images feed the targeted audience’s
aspirations to realize such an ideal—to be like
the Marlboro Man, to own a BMW, to stand
boldly against the tobacco industry.12 Social
images exemplify socially desirable behavior
and the attributes of those who engage in a
behavior—for example, the affluent, sporty,
sexy BMW driver.13
Because social imagery formation plays an
important role in determining adolescent
health behaviors, such as smoking, it can be
used both to encourage and to discourage
those behaviors. For example, tobacco brand
marketing portrays smokers as cool, popular,
and blessed with many friends.14 Because
adolescents typically value these traits, they
may be likely to at least experiment with
smoking.15 But, as with the truth campaign,
social marketers can make their own use of
social imagery.
The social environment, especially the
influence of parents among pre-adolescent
children and of peers among adolescents, is
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another powerful influence on health behavior that can be used in social marketing. The
associations teens form among their immediate social environment, social images, and
exposure to marketing can explain adoption
of health behaviors.
Competition
By creating and promoting positive social images of healthful behaviors aimed at countering unhealthful imagery, social marketers
can compete for children’s and adolescents’
time, attention, and behavioral choices. In
marketing terminology, social marketing can
compete with commercial messages by identifying the “frame of reference”—the competing behavioral options in a given social
context, such as whether to play outdoors or
watch TV—and the “point of difference”—
how to portray one behavior as superior to
another—and developing messages based on
that analysis.16
Social marketers have developed messages
to compete both with commercial marketing
and with the social norms that promote behaviors such as smoking, excessive media use
and other sedentary behavior, or consumption of junk and fast foods. For example, the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s
VERB: It’s What You Do campaign branded
children’s play as fun, cool, and socially desirable behavior.17 The health campaign portrayed the competition—excessive sedentary
behavior, such as watching television—as
socially undesirable, dull, and boring for the
target audience of tweens (nine- to thirteen–
year-olds). The VERB brand’s vision was to
“free children to play out their dreams.”18
Social marketing messages like VERB and
Legacy’s truth campaign compete with commercial marketing—TV as a pastime rather
than active play, or the tobacco industry as
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T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
an industry and source of unhealthful behavioral choices—in an overarching sense,
but not necessarily with specific commercial
brands. Douglas Evans, Simani Price, and
Steven Blahut argue that the truth brand
sought to take “market share” away from the
tobacco industry.19 In traditional product
marketing and branding, taking market share
would involve one product, such as CocaCola, increasing its share of a population,
such as soda drinkers or total sales of soda
among a specific population, at the expense
of a competitor, such as Pepsi, in that same
population.
But social marketing efforts in a health domain, such as physical activity, compete with
commercial marketing in that domain as a
whole by pitting one lifestyle against another.
For example, the active lifestyle promoted by
VERB represents a range of possible active
behavioral choices, from running, to jumping,
to climbing trees, to playing soccer. It is the
general behavior of physical activity that is at
stake. In this context, “market share” means
the proportion of individuals who choose one
behavioral alternative or another. The competition is between engaging in an unhealthful
behavior, such as being a couch potato or
becoming a smoker, and choosing to engage
in a physically active lifestyle and maintaining
that choice.
Social marketing can provide children and
adolescents with reasons and opportunities
to engage in healthful alternatives by demonstrating behavioral alternatives that tap into
their wants and needs, just as commercial
marketers tap into their wants and needs
through product promotion. For example,
the truth campaign tapped into adolescents’
need for independence, rebellion, and
personal control through appealing social
images of nonsmoking lifestyle—cool kids
Social Marketing Campaigns and Children’s Media Use
living without tobacco.20 The social marketing
objective is to get the target audience, in the
case of truth adolescents and young adults
aged twelve to twenty-four, to do other things
besides smoking. By doing other things—
taking action against the tobacco industry,
joining a social movement against tobacco
use—adolescents aspire to the nonsmoking
lifestyle promised by the campaign.
Social marketing can provide
children and adolescents with
reasons and opportunities to
engage in healthful alternatives by demonstrating behavioral alternatives that tap into
their wants and needs.
Public Health Branding
By marketing a coherent set of behavioral
alternatives, public health marketing campaigns also can “brand” a healthful lifestyle by
creating and maintaining social models of that
lifestyle through advertising and promotional
activities similar to those used by commercial
marketing.21 In the commercial world, brands
represent products and services.22 Commercial marketers seek to build strong relations
(positive associations, brand identification,
and loyalty) between customers and product
and service brands such as BMW, Nike, and
Crest toothpaste. Public health brands
represent health behaviors or lifestyles that
embody multiple health behaviors.23 The
hypothesis underlying public health branding
as a social marketing strategy is that adopting
branded “healthful lifestyles” increases the
probability that individuals will engage in
health-promoting and disease-preventing
behaviors and that the associations individuals
form with these brands, such as truth or
VERB campaign brands, mediate the relationship between social marketing messages
and health behaviors such as remaining a
nonsmoker or exercising.24
Factors such as brand loyalty, identification
with brand characteristics, and the perception of positive brand personality traits,
among others, operate as cognitive and emotional mechanisms in the minds of the audience that brand marketers use to promote
consumer behavior.25 These factors can be
measured as both immediate effects of brand
exposure on consumers, and, consequently,
influences on consumer behavior, that form
the basis for individual-level brand research
and evaluation. For example, if I am exposed
to BMW marketing, I may form positive
perceptions of the BMW personality (affluent, sporty, sexy). Forming these personality
associations makes me more likely to buy a
BMW in order to attain the social benefits it
promises (idealized imagery in the brand promotion). Individual-level factors such as loyalty, identification, and personality are among
the constructs underlying brand equity, the
higher-order construct (that is, composed
of individual-level factors) that captures the
effects of commercial brands on consumers
and public health brands on individual health
behaviors.26
Like commercial brands, public health
brands present a call to action—and give
the targeted audience a voice in making
informed decisions about their health and
society’s well-being. For example, tobacco
countermarketing calls on adolescents to join
a social movement against tobacco use, to live
a nonsmoking lifestyle, and to take action to
promote a nonsmoking society.27 All brands
make a “promise”—that the individual will
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realize value by associating with the brand
and that the exchange for that value will
benefit the individual.28 The state of Ohio’s
tobacco countermarketing brand, called
stand, promises, “Make a difference in the
lives of important people around you by
Standing Up against tobacco use.”29
The final element of public
health brands, and one that
helps to distinguish them from
commercial brands, is the
notion that they “vaccinate”
or “inoculate” adolescents
against unhealthful lifestyles.
The final element of public health brands,
and one that helps to distinguish them from
commercial brands, is the notion that they
“vaccinate” or “inoculate” adolescents against
unhealthful lifestyles. The truth campaign
provided arguments, both rational and emotional, for choosing a nonsmoking lifestyle.30
Adolescents and young adults who accept
those arguments—who associate with the
brand—thereby have rational and emotional
tools to resist being influenced by tobacco
industry arguments. This view reflects the
well-known Elaboration Likelihood Model
and the view that individuals who engage in a
process of elaboration of persuasive messages
are more likely to accept and act on them
as intended.31
How Social Marketing Can
Influence Health Behavior
The best evidence of social marketing
effectiveness comes from studies of mass,
population-level communication campaigns,
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T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
which afford opportunities for rigorous evaluation and intervention research. Smaller-scale
social marketing, such as tailored communication for individuals or small groups, is
growing in popularity and has substantial
applications using the Internet and handheld
devices.32 However, tailored health communications is a new field and has not yet
been widely applied to prevention and health
promotion, and there is limited evidence of
its effectiveness in these applications.
Evaluations of Social Marketing Campaigns
Unlike commercial marketing, where unpublished proprietary research is the norm, social
marketing is generating a large and growing
research and evaluation literature. Much of
the research on outcomes of social marketing
campaigns, especially mass media campaigns,
are effectiveness studies conducted in real
time, in the media markets or communities in
which messages are delivered. For example, a
national evaluation of the truth campaign was
based on a quasi-experimental design—that
is, it included a treatment group and a control
group, but the groups were not randomly
assigned, as they are in a true experimental
design— in which campaign exposure was
measured both from environmental measures
and self-reported “confirmed awareness” of
campaign ads.33
In many instances, however, such evaluations
are impractical or impossible, thus limiting
opportunities to advance the state of health
communication research and the knowledge
base on effective campaign strategies, messages, and channels. In the case of paid media
campaigns, funds may be too limited for the
campaign to reach a wide enough audience
to detect campaign effects using population
survey methodologies. Logistical constraints
such as campaign implementation timelines
may also preclude collection of pre-campaign
Social Marketing Campaigns and Children’s Media Use
survey data. In the case of unpaid media,
or public service announcements (PSAs),
the campaign reach in any given designated
market area is typically low. For example,
television PSAs typically run late at night or
on midweek afternoons, when audiences are
small. Thus it is difficult to detect campaign
effects because of low statistical power.
As a result of practical limits facing many
social marketing campaign evaluations, much
of the research in this field is either quasiexperimental, like the truth campaign evaluation, or observational—that is, with no control
group. With the help of several colleagues,
I reviewed evaluations of social marketing
campaigns that used branding strategies
and found that only three out of thirty-three
studies used a randomized experimental
design, the gold standard for evaluations. Five
reported outcomes from quasi-experimental
designs. Twenty-five of the studies were based
on observational designs.
Evidence of the Effectiveness of
Social Marketing
Other recent reviews of social marketing
evidence, including campaigns that were not
explicitly “branded,” indicate that mass media
social marketing through television, radio,
outdoor and print advertising, and the Internet is effective in changing health behaviors
on a population level. In general, these studies
show that social marketing has successfully
changed health behavior such as smoking,
physical activity, and condom use, as well as
behavioral mediators such as knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs related to these behaviors.
Most of these studies, however, have shown
effect sizes of less than 10 percent.34
In their widely cited study of forty-eight U.S.
social marketing campaigns based on mass
media, Leslie Snyder and Mark Hamilton
found that the average campaign accounted
for about 9 percent of the variation in health
risk behavior outcomes, but with varying
results.35 The subset of “non-coercive”
campaigns—that is, those that simply deliver
health information instead of attempting to
persuade and advocate for a behavior—
accounted for about 5 percent of observed
variation, as compared with 9 percent for all
forty-eight campaigns reviewed.
A study of seventeen recent European media
campaigns on a range of topics including
promotion of HIV testing, myocardial infarction hospital admissions, immunizations,
and cancer screenings found similar effects
in the range of 5–10 percent.36 Like previous research, this study shows that single or
few-time behaviors can be easier to promote
than behavior requiring repetition and maintenance over time.37 Some behaviors that do
not require long-term maintenance, such
as breastfeeding and Vitamin A promotion,
and switching to 1 percent milk, have shown
greater effect sizes and generally appear to
have higher rates of success.38
One example of social marketing to promote
a broad range of healthful behaviors that has
not, as yet, been widely evaluated is “edutainment” programming, such as adaptations of
the Sesame Street series sponsored by the
Sesame Workshop.
Edutainment: The Sesame Workshop
Edutainment (sometimes called “educational
entertainment” or “entertainment-education”)
is another form of social marketing that
has been widely used to reach children and
adolescents for the purpose of informing
and changing health and social behaviors.
Edutainment seeks to instruct or socialize
its audience by embedding lessons in some
familiar form of entertainment: television
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programs, computer and video games, films,
music, websites, multimedia, and so on.
Sesame Workshop, a nonprofit educational
media producer, has created a series of
adaptations of the long-running children’s
educational program, Sesame Street. Sisimpur,
for example, the Bangladeshi adaptation of
Sesame Street, is designed to meet the
learning needs of three- to six-year-olds across
social classes and different regions of the
country. The series features unique Banglaspeaking Muppets such as Ikri Mikri, an
imaginative three-year-old who encourages
young girls to have a limitless sense of possibility. Original music and locally produced
live-action and animated segments reflect the
rich artistic heritage of Bangladeshi culture.
With a curriculum defined by Bangladeshi
educators, the series emphasizes literacy,
math, and science and also helps foster values
such as self-respect, empathy, and cooperation. Other key objectives include improving
educational opportunities for young girls;
promoting good nutrition, hygiene, and safety;
and encouraging appreciation of the shared
cultural heritage of diverse segments of
Bangladeshi society.
Another recent adaptation by Sesame
Workshop is Jalan Sesama, a television series
created by local producers and educators to
meet the needs of Indonesian children aged
three to six. Jalan Sesama promotes ageappropriate and culturally relevant academic
and life skills. Like its counterpart in the
United States, the television program has a
“magazine” format comprising short animations, live action (documentary film) pieces,
and studio segments featuring puppets,
affording opportunities to present an array
of educational experiences that enhance and
expand children’s knowledge and skills. Each
segment of Jalan Sesama addresses a specific
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T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
educational objective from one of the following developmental domains: physical (including physical development, health, and safety);
cognitive (including such areas as cognitive
development, language arts, mathematics,
and science); emotional (identifying, expressing, and managing emotions); social skills to
get along with peers and adults; aesthetic (appreciating art forms, creativity, and culture);
and moral (moral principles and integrity,
honesty, fairness, and manners).
The Sesame Workshop
adaptations and others like
them have successfully
integrated multiple health,
educational, and social
topics into a single program,
or series of programs,
thus addressing multiple
risk factors.
Edutainment, many examples of which span
the spectrum of health, education, and social
issues, has several major advantages as a form
of social marketing. First, as commercial
programs, edutainment can reach a wider
audience than many other social marketing
campaigns.39 Second, edutainment combines
the benefits of branding, through characters
and story lines, with knowledge- and skillsbuilding through health information delivery.
Finally, in a program format, the Sesame
Workshop adaptations and others like them
have successfully integrated multiple health,
educational, and social topics into a single
program, or series of programs, thus addressing multiple risk factors. This approach
has significant potential for social marketing
Social Marketing Campaigns and Children’s Media Use
aimed at protecting children from the effects
of commercial media and marketing.
How Social Marketing Can Counter
Media Messages about Unhealthful
Behavior
As noted, social marketing campaigns have
been notably successful in three areas: preventing tobacco use, promoting diet and physical activity, and preventing HIV/AIDS. In each
area, messages promote healthful behavior
and counter the effects of media messages that
glamorize or otherwise encourage risky behaviors. These three areas have seen the largest
number of effective branded campaigns.40
Tobacco Countermarketing Campaigns
One of the most successful social marketing
efforts has been tobacco countermarketing
campaigns aimed at preventing youth from
starting to smoke. For example, campaigns
such as the American Legacy Foundation’s
truth campaign have successfully reduced
smoking initiation and progression to established smoking. Matthew Farrelly and several
colleagues showed that from 1999 to 2002,
U.S. youth smoking prevalence declined from
25.3 percent to 18.0 percent and that truth
accounted for approximately 22 percent of
that decline.41
Although the effect size of the truth campaign
is small by clinical standards, the campaign
shows that social marketing can have a big
impact on population-level health. In the case
of truth, the campaign-attributable decline in
youth smoking equates to some 300,000 fewer
youth smokers and thus millions of added
life years as well as tremendous reductions in
health care and other social costs.
State-funded countermarketing campaigns
have also been effective in preventing and
controlling tobacco use. Edward Siegel and
Lois Biener analyzed longitudinal data from
the Massachusetts countermarketing campaign and found that adolescents who were
aged twelve to thirteen years at the study’s
outset and who reported exposure to television antismoking advertisements were
significantly less likely to progress to established smoking than their peers who did not
report exposure.42 The study, however, found
no effect on progression to established
smoking among adolescents aged fourteen to
fifteen as the study began and no effects of
exposure to radio or outdoor advertisements.
Countermarketing campaigns have been
found effective in influencing specific, targeted attitudes and beliefs to affect smoking
behavior. A longitudinal study of the Florida
TRUTH campaign (the state campaign that
preceded, and was the model for, the national
truth campaign) found that teenagers with
high levels of anti-tobacco industry attitudes
were four times less likely to initiate smoking
and more than thirteen times less likely to
become established smokers than their peers
with low levels of such attitudes.43 James
Hersey and several colleagues found that state
countermarketing campaigns using an antitobacco industry message prime, or make
more salient, negative perceptions about
tobacco industry practices.44 Jeffrey Niederdeppe, Matthew Farrelly, and M. Lyndon
Haviland confirmed that TRUTH reduced
smoking among Florida teens and found specifically that adoption of two counterindustry
beliefs central to the campaign were associated with lower teen smoking rates.45
Diet and Physical Activity Countermarketing Campaigns
Social marketing’s success in the arena of
nutrition and physical activity promotion and
obesity prevention has provided insights to
help inform future nutrition campaigns.46
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Several effective branded nutrition campaigns,
such as the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI)
5-A-Day for Better Health, are widely known
to the public. In a workshop on diet and communication sponsored by NCI in July 2005,
researchers examined the potential for diet
and communication fields to work collaboratively and develop more effective social marketing strategies.47 The workshop confirmed
previous research on poor nutrition as a
serious and growing risk factor for children’s
health and highlighted social marketing’s
promise in protecting children and promoting better nutritional health.48
One of the most successful diet and nutrition
efforts has been the 1% Or Less campaign,
which encouraged adults and children older
than age two to drink milk with a fat content
of 1 percent or less, instead of whole or 2
percent milk.49 Designed by the Center for
Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit
group dedicated to improving the nation’s
health through better nutrition, this campaign
has been carried out at many sites since 1995.
The campaign includes news stories and
advertisements on television, radio, billboards, and in newspapers; milk taste-tests at
a variety of community sites; supermarket
shelf labeling to draw attention to low-fat
milk; and school activities. The California
Adolescent Nutrition and Fitness (CANFit)
program found that after its 1% Or Less
campaign in East Los Angeles, whole milk
purchases had dropped from 66 percent to 24
percent of overall sales and that the share of
all low-fat milk sold had more than doubled.50
Although it was not a goal of the campaign,
overall milk purchases had increased by
30 percent.51
HIV/AIDS Countermarketing Campaigns
HIV/AIDS prevention in the United States,
other developed nations, and the developing
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world, especially Africa, presents a different
kind of social marketing challenge. Sexual
imagery, sexualization of children, and
normalization of early sexual debut among
adolescents are pervasive in both contemporary media and commercial marketing and
represent a major risk factor.52 Having sex is
often seen as a rite of passage of youth, and
the peer pressure and social desirability of
being sexually active may be stronger than
they are in the case of smoking or other risk
behaviors. Social marketing campaigns must
consider these factors when developing
messages and setting behavior change
objectives.
The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation
partnered with media giant Viacom to launch
KNOW HIV/AIDS, a comprehensive public
education campaign in the United States in
2003.53 The effort built on the existing partnership between the Kaiser Family Foundation and Black Entertainment Television
(BET, whose parent company is Viacom),
which promoted HIV/AIDS prevention and
awareness through the targeted Rap It Up
campaign beginning in 1998.54 The campaign
reports that it has produced 131 rights-free
(that is, non-copyrighted) messages, totaling a
media value commitment of more than $600
million.55
KNOW HIV/AIDS has five aims: to increase
awareness about HIV/AIDS and how to
prevent it, to encourage dialogue between
partners and with health care providers about
sexual health issues, to encourage and promote testing, to address the role that stigma
and discrimination play in spreading the
disease, and to promote safer sex behaviors.56
The campaign uses partnerships with media,
commercial businesses, government, and
community-based groups and contributions
of air time, community outreach, and similar
Social Marketing Campaigns and Children’s Media Use
methods to increase campaign exposure. It
promotes messages through paid and unpaid
targeted television, radio, and outdoor PSAs;
HIV-themed television and radio programming (primarily through partners Viacom and
BET); print media; online and other electronic media; and public outreach.57
The 2004 survey of African Americans reported by Victoria Rideout revealed that 82
percent of all respondents and 94 percent of
young adults aged eighteen to twenty-four recalled at least one campaign advertisement or
program component, and 70 percent recalled
seeing two specific advertisements. Brand
awareness for the Rap It Up campaign was
also high, with 58 percent of all respondents
and 92 percent of young adults reporting
awareness. Approximately 30 percent of all
respondents and young adults demonstrated
recall of the KNOW HIV/AIDS brand.58
Respondents who reported exposure to one
or more campaign component said that the
campaign had influenced their plans for the
future, including visiting a doctor or getting
tested for HIV, and were more likely than
respondents who were not aware of campaign
components to indicate they planned to engage in these behaviors. However, one major
study did not show a link between exposure
and intentions or sexual behavior.59
Three branded HIV/AIDS prevention social
marketing campaigns that illustrate strategies
for reaching adolescents and young adults
have recently been conducted in Africa: Trust
in Kenya, Salama in Tanzania, and loveLife
in South Africa.60 Trust, conducted by the
U.S.-based Population Services International
(PSI), promoted the social desirability of condom use to make using a condom seem cool.
Special events such as concerts were part of
the campaign. Salama, also led by PSI, tar-
geted high-risk groups including young people aged fifteen to twenty-four, commercial
sex workers, and rural populations, but it also
operated on the principle that young people
are susceptible to messages about behavior
change. Salama relied heavily on community
outreach such as concerts, cultural shows,
mobile video units, and sport tournaments.
The loveLife campaign was the most comprehensive of the three. It aimed to reduce by
half the rate of HIV infection among fifteento twenty-year-olds, as well as to reduce other
sexually transmitted diseases and the incidence of teenage pregnancy. It promoted a
lifestyle choice valuing abstinence, delayed
initiation of sexual activity, fewer sexual
partners among already sexually active
teenagers, and condom use. It was supported
by nationwide adolescent-centered reproductive health services in government clinics and
a network of youth outreach and support.
Studies show that each of the campaigns
increased adolescent and young adult awareness of these HIV/AIDS prevention brands
and also increased awareness of HIV/AIDS
health risks and intentions to use condoms.61
Effects of the campaigns included delayed
onset of sexual activity and increased condom
use among those with repeated exposure to
these brands. No comparable interventions,
however, have been conducted in the United
States.
How Social Marketing Can
Encourage Discussions among
Parents and Children
Social marketing campaigns can also help
parents influence their children’s behaviors.
Three examples stand out. The first is a
traditional public service announcement, an
unpaid (that is, air time was provided free by
media outlets) mass media campaign called
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W. Douglas Evans
the TV Boss campaign sponsored by the
Ad Council. The second is a multi-channel,
mixed community- and media-based campaign aimed at reducing childhood obesity,
in part through reduced screen time and
increased exercise, called 5-4-3-2-1 Go!
sponsored by the Consortium to Lower
Obesity in Chicago Children. The third is the
Parents Speak Up national campaign, a U.S.
Department of Health and Human Services
campaign to promote parent-child communication about delaying sexual activity.
Each of these examples highlights different
ways that social marketing can possibly
protect children from effects of exposure to
commercial media and marketing, either
directly through messages to them or indirectly through messages to parents and
family. Lessons learned from these examples
may be instructive to future social marketing
efforts in this arena.
The TV Boss Campaign
The Ad Council has created a TV Boss
website and a public service announcement
campaign in collaboration with major sponsors such as the Motion Picture Association
of America, the National Cable and Telecommunication Association, the National Association of Broadcasters, and others.62 The stated
purpose of the campaign is to “give parents
the tools and information they need to guide
their child’s television consumption.”
The campaign is a “direct influence” effort to
raise parents’ knowledge and build their skills
to control children’s TV and media use.
Recognizing that motivation will be important to encourage parental action, the campaign uses themes such as parental control
over negative media influences, depicting
knowledgeable parents “blocking” potentially
risqué or violent characters in PSA spots.
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T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
The TV Boss is a good example of the use of
branding to reduce media use and limit
children’s exposure to specific content. The
campaign has virtually all the major elements
of public health branding.63 First, it seeks to
develop a relationship with the target audience
by depicting parents in the same situation that
audience members likely would be (need to
protect kids, lots of negative TV characters out
there), modeling their concerns, and showing
them being strong and taking control by
blocking negative content. The campaign adds
value for audience members by providing tools
and information and builds on positive norms
of parental involvement and control that tap
into parents’ needs with respect to their
children, especially adolescents.
To date, no evaluation data on The TV Boss
have been published. But this and other campaigns that are directly aimed at behaviors to
protect children and adolescents from inappropriate TV content are a promising social
marketing strategy and should be evaluated. In
particular, it will be important to compare the
effectiveness of parentally oriented campaigns
and those targeting children directly using risk
factor and behavior change messages.
The 5-4-3-2-1 Go! Campaign
The Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago
Children (CLOCC) developed a public health
education initiative to bolster ongoing local
efforts addressing Chicago’s childhood obesity
epidemic through healthful eating and physical activity. A citywide coalition of groups representing virtually all social sectors developed
the 5-4-3-2-1 Go! social marketing initiative,
which involves community youth and partners
across Chicago in developing and disseminating the core messages. After completing a
training process, youth ambassadors (known
as Go! Teams) deliver these messages through
community outreach activities. The campaign
Social Marketing Campaigns and Children’s Media Use
Table 2. 5-4-3-2-1 Go! Delivery Channels
Channels
Aim
Strategy
Tactics
Effects
Go! Teams
Create 5-4-3-2-1 Go! Teams
to provide a “for us, by us”
element to the program so
that the targeted Chicago
children, adolescents, and
families will relate to it.
Engage Chicagoans who are
social models and embody
the values of living a healthful lifestyle, such as high
school sports stars, political
leaders, sports, TV and
movie personalities.
Create a team of high
school student leaders
(the Go! Team) from
diverse ethnic backgrounds who can serve
as positive role models
for younger kids and, at
the same time, serve
as living mascots who
build awareness for the
5-4-3-2-1 Go! brand.
Brand the look of the Go!
Team to guarantee recognition and visual appeal.
Earned media
coverage
through community media
and events
Raise public awareness and
promote support for 5-4-3-2-1
Go! and involvement in 5-43-2-1 Go! activities through
advocating for and drawing
attention to the campaign,
leading to news media
coverage.
CLOCC has more than 500
community partners, many in
the six target communities.
Working with partners, 5-43-2-1 Go! will promote news
media attention to its activities using media advocacy
techniques such as staging
events.
Go! Teams work through
community partners to
reach community-level
newspapers published
in English and Spanish.
Awareness of the existence of 5-4-3-2-1 Go! will
increase, as measured by
response to 5-4-3-2-1 Go!
awareness and specific
questions about exposure
to news media coverage of
5-4-3-2-1 Go!
Website www.
clocc.net/
Create a 5-4-3-2-1 Go! website (www.clocc.net/) featuring information in English and
Spanish as an effective way
to disseminate information
about the campaign 24 hours
a day/7 days a week.
The site contains detailed
and practical information
based on key messages and
is updated weekly. It features
upcoming events and how to
participate, prizes and how
to win them, photos, and
games to test kids’ nutrition
and fitness knowledge.
CLOCC works with Chicago
schools to direct traffic to the
site and make it a “favorite”
on all elementary school
computers.
Drive traffic to the site
by coordinating with
Chicago Park District,
Chicago Public Schools,
Mayor’s Office of Special Events, and other
partners to establish
a hyperlink back to the
site. Promote the site
through Go! Teams.
The website becomes a
trusted health information source for community
members. They receive
more detailed information
on the 5-4-3-2-1 Go! message and specific information about how to access
community resources, how
to make more healthful
food choices, and where
to get nutritious foods (for
example, local farmers’
markets and the producemobile).
is based on a simple 5-4-3-2-1 healthful eating
and active living message for children: consume five or more fruits and vegetables, four
servings of water, and three servings of low-fat
dairy a day; spend no more than two hours
watching television or engaging in a similar
sedentary behavior; and get at least one hour
of physical activity a day.
The 5-4-3-2-1 Go! campaign uses a healthfullifestyles branding strategy aimed at improving family food choices and increasing use of
community physical activity resources.64 It
targets six vanguard community areas that are
linked to census boundaries in Chicago and is
in part a response to the “obesigenic” environment, both social and physical, in those
communities that inhibits healthful lifestyles.65
The campaign also responds to the complex
and potentially reciprocal relation among
characteristics of the physical environment,
social capital, and physical activity. For
example, highly walkable, mixed-use
neighbor­hoods have been associated with
increased physical activity in the form of more
walking for transportation.66
The social marketing strategy behind the
campaign is culturally relevant and true to
community norms and values. Its healthfullifestyles brand uses a name and logo-treatment that embodies the brand essence:
“Eating right and being healthy is as easy as
5-4-3-2-1 Go!” It communicates positive
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W. Douglas Evans
messages that resonate across different ethnic
communities and builds on local community
pride in being Chicago residents. Table 2
summarizes the delivery channels used to market key messages and their hypothesized
effects.
Parents Speak Up National Campaign
In 2005, Congress authorized up to $10 million for the Administration on Children and
Families to carry out the Parents Speak Up
national campaign, a national public education campaign to promote delayed sexual
debut by teenagers. The national multimedia
campaign encourages parents to talk “early
and often” to their pre-adolescent and adolescent children aged ten to fourteen about
delaying the onset of sexual activity. The
purpose is to increase parent-child communication as a proximal behavioral outcome
leading to delayed onset of sexual activity.
The strategy of aiming messages promoting
parent-child communication at this target
audience has been used on a smaller scale
in school- and community-based interventions, but never on a national scale in a mass
communication campaign. The campaign was
publicly released in June 2007.
The campaign applies many of the principles
of marketing. In particular, it uses a theorybased behavior-change model that hypothesizes increased parent-child communication
will result from positive reactions to the
public service advertising. It also develops a
credible and likeable “argument” for delaying
initiation of sexual activity by communicating
personal (social, educational, career-related)
advantages of abstinence. The campaign uses
strategies such as promoting self-efficacy and
appealing to fear to communicate the health
risks of early sexual debut, the individual’s
ability to delay sexual debut, and the benefits
of waiting.67
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The campaign’s primary means of communication is paid and unpaid public service
announcements designed for a general
audience. The campaign also supports three
outreach centers—African American, Hispanic, and American Indian—to get help with
research, message development, creative
development, support building, and message
penetration in these communities. Finally,
the campaign uses outdoor advertising
(billboards), bus media, posters, Web
banners, and media kits.
Parents Speak Up also includes a 4Parents.gov
website and associated parent and adolescent
guides. The website provides information
(as opposed to motivational messages) for
parents about how to talk with their preteen
or teen about waiting to have sex, about the
accuracy of social norms among teens, and
about related topics such as parent-child
relationship quality and setting goals for
the future.68
There is also an ongoing impact evaluation
to measure reactions and changes associated
with exposure to Parents Speak Up messages
and ad executions. The evaluation will be
the first of its kind of a national campaign to
increase parent-child communication about
sexual activity. The primary evaluation study is
a randomized controlled trial of mothers and
fathers of children aged ten to fourteen, the
campaign’s target audience. Parents are randomly assigned to control, treatment (exposure to a core set of campaign messages), and
treatment plus booster (core plus additional
and more frequent campaign messages) conditions. The different groups will be surveyed
at baseline (before message exposure) and at
four follow-up time points, four weeks,
six months, twelve months, and eighteen
months later.
Social Marketing Campaigns and Children’s Media Use
Conclusions and Recommendations
Social marketing has been successful at
changing a wide range of health behaviors,
especially in the domains of tobacco use, nutrition and physical activity, and HIV/AIDS.
Social marketers have become increasingly
adept at using commercial marketing strategies to craft competing messages and reduce
the percentage of children and adolescents
responding to commercial messages. In some
cases, despite their relatively small budgets
and slender resources, social marketers have
been successful at taking market share away
from the commercial sector.69
The competition between
industry and social marketing
brands is far from even. How
can social marketing succeed
in the long run given this
comparative disadvantage?
Unlike more heavily funded commercial marketers, however, social marketers can rarely
maintain public exposure to health messages
at high levels. Given the importance of exposure, social marketers thus often operate at
a significant disadvantage to the commercial
sector. The competition between industry
and social marketing brands is far from even.
How can social marketing succeed in the long
run given this comparative disadvantage?
The answer to date has been threefold:
develop more socially powerful and persuasive competing messages; use multiple
channels including media, community
outreach, and mobilization and develop social
movements; and focus on social and health
policies that affect individual behavior and
behavioral determinants. Tobacco countermarketing campaigns like truth, for example,
have developed innovative public health
brands and created messages based on an
adolescent “consumer” orientation.70 At the
same time, truth engaged communities and
advocated for state and national tobacco
policy changes, such as clean indoor air laws
and cigarette tax increases.71
Future efforts to limit children’s media use
should draw on lessons learned from past
efforts: know the audience and target messages appropriately; use creative marketing
and promotional strategies such as branding
healthful lifestyle choices; use multiple channels to increase exposure; and address public
policy in addition to individual behavior.
There are several potentially fruitful avenues
for future messages and campaigns. For
pre-adolescent children, parents are a
powerful social influence and have substantial
opportunities to limit media use and marketing exposure. Social marketers should
conduct formative research with parents to
understand the home and family media
environment and parents’ role in regulating
children’s media use. Amy Jordan and several
colleagues conducted research along these
lines, though not aimed at designing a social
marketing campaign, that could serve as a
starting point.72
Based on findings of this and related research, a campaign targeting possibly two
distinct groups—parents of preschool (aged
two to five) and elementary school (aged six
to eleven) children—could be developed.
Messages would be crafted specifically for
each group with the aim of informing each
about what constitutes appropriate media use
(for example, two or fewer hours of screen
time a day) and raising awareness of the
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health risks of excessive media use and the
potential risks of marketing exposure. Another aim would be to modify parent attitudes and practices about children’s media
use, following other successful campaigns by
portraying an active healthful lifestyle as
socially desirable. The overarching goal
would be to change the social norm about
media use from one of permissiveness to one
of parental involvement and management of
the home and family media environment.
For adolescents (aged twelve to seventeen),
and potentially also a secondary audience
of young adults (aged eighteen to twentyfour), separate formative research should
be conducted on their knowledge, attitudes,
beliefs, and practices related to media use
and how they use their time with media,
including television, music, and new media,
as compared with other pursuits. The goal
of this campaign would be to brand limited
media use as socially desirable, as the new,
hip, and cool way to live. Media use would
not be demonized, but placed in the context
of a larger, socially desirable lifestyle in which
television, the Internet, and other media
devices are part of a wide array of pursuits—
living a physically active, outgoing, socially
engaged lifestyle—in which hip young people
want to engage. Messages would be aimed at
changing social norms about media use, raising consciousness of the limitations of mediamultitasking, and increasing awareness of the
value of interpersonal interaction in balance
with human-media interaction. Advertising to
promote the brand would use social modeling by portraying hip, edgy, cool kids using
media in moderation or balancing media use
and multitasking with popularity among peers
and direct (not online) social interaction as
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T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
desired goals. Media use—“it’s cool but don’t
let it rule (your life).”
Five new strategies now being developed and
used within social marketing campaigns may
help in future messages and campaigns. The
first such strategy is improved audience segmentation. For example, social marketers can
use market research data, such as that used
by commercial marketers, to identify more
refined behavioral predictors and related
message strategies. The second strategy is to
develop tailored messages for very specific
groups, such as adolescents who visit certain
websites. The third strategy is co-branding.
Like the commercial marketers, social marketers can link their branded messages to
other trusted brands, such as by co-branding
a nutrition social marketing message with the
Sesame Workshop. The fourth strategy is to
make full use of technology. The Internet,
handheld devices, and other media offer
social marketers opportunities to compete
with industry using low-cost word-of-mouth
marketing (so-called viral marketing). The
fifth and final strategy is social networking.
Social marketers can place messages in media
used by children and adolescents to network
and take advantage of potential social diffusion effects (for example, through MySpace,
Facebook, and iPods).
Innovations such as these are no panacea.
The task facing social marketing is daunting in the face of the rising tide of children’s
media use and large and growing commercial
marketing efforts and budgets. These approaches, however, would continue the so-far
successful trends in social marketing demonstrated in tobacco control, diet and physical
activity, and HIV/AIDS prevention.
Social Marketing Campaigns and Children’s Media Use
Endnotes
1. D. Aaker, Building Strong Brands (New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1996).
2. M. C. Farrelly and others, “Evidence of a Dose-Response Relationship between ‘truth’ Antismoking Ads
and Youth Smoking,” American Journal of Public Health 95, no. 3 (2005): 425–31.
3. W. D. Evans and others, “The ASSIST Newspaper Tracking System,” in Evaluation of Project ASSIST:
A Blueprint for State-Level Tobacco Control, edited by F. Stillman and W. Trochim (Bethesda, Md.:
National Cancer Institute, 2006).
4. M. Haider, “Branding of International Public Health Organizations: Applying Commercial Marketing to
Global Public Health,” in Public Health Branding: Applying Marketing for Social Change, edited by
W. D. Evans and G. Hastings (Oxford University Press, 2008.)
5. W. D. Evans and others, “The 5-4-3-2-1 Go! Intervention: Social Marketing for Nutrition,” Journal of
Nutrition Education and Behavior 39, no. 2, S.1 (2007): S55–S59; B. Reger, M. Wootan, and S. BoothButterfield, “Using Mass Media to Promote Healthful Eating: A Community-Based Demonstration
Project,” Preventive Medicine 29 (1999): 414–21; B. Reger and others, “1% or Less: A Community-Based
Nutrition Campaign,” Public Health Reports 113, no. 5 (1998): 410–19.
6. W. D. Evans, “How Social Marketing Works in Health Care,” British Medical Journal 322 (2006):1207–10.
7. W. D. Evans and others, “Systematic Review of Public Health Branding,” Journal of Health Communication (forthcoming).
8. G. J. Botvin and others, “Effectiveness of Culturally-Focused and Generic Skills Training Approaches
to Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention among Minority Youths,” Psychology of Addictive Behaviors 8
(1994): 116–27.
9. W. D. Evans, S. Price, and S. Blahut, “Evaluating the truth® Brand,” Journal of Health Communication 10,
no. 2 (2005): 181–92.
10. A. Bandura, Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory (Englewood Cliffs,
N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1986).
11. W. D. Evans and others, “Branding Behavior: The Strategy behind the truth® Campaign,” Social Marketing Quarterly 8, no. 3 (2002): 17–29.
12. W. D. Evans and others, “Social Imagery, Tobacco Independence, and the truth® Campaign,” Journal of
Health Communication 9, no. 5 (2004): 425–41.
13. L. Chassin and others, “Self-Images and Cigarette Smoking in Adolescence,” Personality and Social
Psychology Bulletin 7 (1981): 670–76.
14. P. A. Aloise-Young and K. M. Hennigan, “Self-Image, the Smoker Stereotype, and Cigarette Smoking:
Developmental Patterns from Fifth through Eighth Grade,” Journal of Adolescence 19 (1996): 163–77.
15. D. Burton and others, “Image Attributions and Smoking Intentions among Seventh Grade Students,”
Journal of Applied Social Psychology 19 (1989): 656–64.
16. A. Tybout and B. Sternthal, “Brand Positioning,” in Kellogg on Branding, edited by A. Tybout and
T. Calkins (New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2005).
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17. M. Huhman and others, “Effects of a Mass Media Campaign to Increase Physical Activity among Children:
Year-1 Results of the VERB Campaign,” Pediatrics 116 (2005): e247–54.
18. M. Huhman, S. Price, and L. Potter, “Branding Play for Children: VERB™ It’s What You Do,” in Public
Health Branding: Applying Marketing for Social Change, edited by W. D. Evans and G. Hastings (London:
Oxford University Press, 2008).
19. Evans, Price, and Blahut, “Evaluating the truth® Brand” (see note 9).
20. Ibid.
21. W. D. Evans and G. Hastings, “Public Health Branding: Recognition, Promise, and Delivery of Healthy
Lifestyles,” in Public Health Branding: Applying Marketing for Social Change, edited by Evans and Hastings
(London: Oxford University Press, 2008).
22. Aaker, Building Strong Brands (see note 1).
23. Evans, Price, and Blahut, “Evaluating the truth® Brand” (see note 9); W. D. Evans and others, “Systematic Review of Public Health Branding” (see note 7).
24. Evans, Price, and Blahut, “Evaluating the truth® Brand” (see note 9); Huhman and others, “Effects of a
Mass Media Campaign” (see note 17); Farrelly and others, “Evidence of a Dose-Response Relationship”
(see note 2).
25. K. L. Keller, “Branding Perspectives on Social Marketing,” Advances in Consumer Research 25 (1998): 299–302.
26. Evans and Hastings, “Public Health Branding” (see note 21); Evans, Price, and Blahut, “Evaluating the
truth® Brand” (see note 9).
27. Farrelly and others, “Evidence of a Dose-Response Relationship” (see note 2).
28. T. Calkins, “The Challenge of Branding,” in Kellogg on Branding, edited by Tybout and Calkins (New
York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2005).
29. W. D. Evans and others, “Prevention Effects of an Anti-tobacco Brand on Adolescent Smoking Initiation,”
Social Marketing Quarterly 13, no. 2 (2007): 19–38.
30. J. C. Hersey and others, “The Theory of truth®: How Counterindustry Campaigns Affect Smoking
Behavior among Teens,” Health Psychology 24, no. 1 (2005): 22–31.
31. R. E. Petty and J. T. Cacioppo, Communication and Persuasion: Central and Peripheral Routes to Attitude
Change (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1986).
32. M. Kreuter and others, Tailored Health Messages: Customizing Communication with Computer Technology
(Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000).
33. Farrelly and others, “Evidence of a Dose-Response Relationship” (see note 2). The environmental
measures were gross rating points, or GRPs, derived from designated market areas, or DMAs.
34. R. C. Hornik, ed., Public Health Communication: Evidence for Behavior Change (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence
Erlbaum, 2002).
35. L. B. Snyder and M. A. Hamilton, “Meta-analysis of U.S. Health Campaign Effects on Behavior:
Emphasize Enforcement, Exposure, and New Information, and Beware the Secular Trend,” in Public
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T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
Social Marketing Campaigns and Children’s Media Use
Health Communication: Evidence for Behavior Change, edited by Robert C. Hornik (Hillsdale, N.J.:
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002), pp. 357–83.
36. R. Grilli, C. R. Ramsay, and S. Minozzi, Mass Media Interventions: Effects on Health Services
Utilisation, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Issue 1 (2002): Art. Number: CD000389,
DOI:10.1002.14651858.CD000389.
37. Evans, “How Social Marketing Works in Health Care” (see note 6).
38. R. C. Hornik, “Public Health Education and Communication as Policy Instruments for Bringing about
Changes in Behavior,” in Social Marketing, edited by M. Goldberg, M. Fishbein, and S. Middlestadt
(Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1997).
39. R. C. Hornik, ed., Public Health Communication: Evidence for Behavior Change (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence
Erlbaum, 2002).
40. Evans and others, “Systematic Review of Public Health Branding” (see note 7).
41. Farrelly and others, “Evidence of a Dose-Response Relationship” (see note 2).
42. M. Siegel and L. Biener, “The Impact of an Antismoking Media Campaign on Progression to Established
Smoking: Results of a Longitudinal Youth Study,” American Journal of Public Health 90 (2004): 380–86.
43. D. F. Sly, E. Trapido, and S. Ray, “Evidence of the Dose Effects of an Antitobacco Counteradvertising
Campaign,” Preventive Medicine 35 (2002): 511–18.
44. J. C. Hersey and others, “How State Counter-Industry Campaigns Help Prime Perceptions of Tobacco
Industry Practices to Promote Reductions in Youth Smoking,” Tobacco Control 14 (2005): 377–83.
45. J. Niederdeppe, M. C. Farrelly, and M. L. Haviland, “Confirming ‘truth’: More Evidence of a Successful
Tobacco Countermarketing Campaign in Florida,” American Journal of Public Health 94, no. 2 (2004):
255–57.
46. L. Snyder, “Health Communication Campaigns and Their Impact on Behavior,” Journal of Nutrition
Education and Behavior 39, no. 2, S. 1 (2007): S32–40.
47. W. L. Johnson-Taylor and others, “What Can Communication Science Tell Us about Promoting Optimal
Dietary Behavior?” Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior 39, no. 2, S. 1 (2007): S1–S4.
48. A. F. Subar and others, “Dietary Sources of Nutrients among U.S. Children, 1989–1991,” Pediatrics 102
(1998): 913–23.
49. Reger, Wootan, and Booth-Butterfield, “Using Mass Media to Promote Healthy Eating” (see note 5);
Reger and others, “1% or Less: A Community-Based Nutrition Campaign” (see note 5).
50. CANFit, “CANFit’s Latino 1% Milk Social Marketing Campaign,” CANFit Connection (www.canfit.org/
assets/images/Newsletter_-_Fall_2000.PDF [August 10, 2007]).
51. Reger, Wootan, and Booth-Butterfield, “Using Mass Media to Promote Healthy Eating” (see note 5).
52. S. Villani, “Impact of Media on Children and Adolescents: A 10-Year Review of the Research,” Journal of
the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 10, no. 4 (2001): 392–401.
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53. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, “About Viacom: KNOW HIV/AIDS” (www.kff.org/entpartnerships/
viacom/index.cfm [August 10, 2007]).
54. V. Rideout, “Assessing Public Education Programming on HIV/AIDS: A National Survey of African
Americans” (Washington, D.C.: Kaiser Family Foundation, 2004).
55. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, “KNOW HIV/AIDS: Learn about the Campaign” (www.know
hivaids.org/learn_about.html [August 10, 2007]).
56. Rideout, “Assessing Public Education Programs on HIV/AIDS” (see note 54).
57. Kaiser Family Foundation, “About Viacom: KNOW HIV/AIDS” (see note 53).
58. Rideout, “Assessing Public Education Programs on HIV/AIDS” (see note 54).
59. Ibid.
60. W. D. Evans and M. Haider, “Public Health Brands in the Developing World,” in Public Health Branding:
Applying Marketing for Social Change, edited by W. D. Evans and G. Hastings (London: Oxford University
Press, 2008).
61. S. Agha, “The Impact of a Mass Media Campaign on Personal Risk Perception, Perceived Self-Efficacy,
and Other Behavioral Predictors,” Aids Care 15, no. 6 (2003): 749–62; P. M. Eloundou-Enyegue,
D. Meekers, and A. E. Calves, “From Awareness to Adoption: The Effect of AIDS Education and Condom Social Marketing on Condom Use in Tanzania (1993–1996),” Journal of Biosocial Science 37 (2005):
257–68; J. Stadler and L. Hlongwa, “Monitoring and Evaluation of loveLife’s AIDS Prevention and
Advocacy Activities in South Africa, 1999–2001,” Evaluation and Program Planning 25 (2002): 365–76.
62. The Ad Council, “Parents: The TV Boss” (www.thetvboss.org/ [July 9, 2007]).
63. Evans and others, “Systematic Review of Public Health Branding” (see note 7).
64. W. D. Evans and others, “The 5-4-3-2-1 Go! Intervention: Social Marketing Strategies for Nutrition” (see
note 5).
65. J. O. Hill and J. C. Peters, “Environmental Contributions to the Obesity Epidemic,” Science 280 (1998):
1371–74; J. O. Hill and others, “Obesity and the Environment: Where Do We Go from Here?” Science
299 (2003): 853–55.
66. L. D. Frank and others, “Linking Objectively Measured Physical Activity with Objectively Measured
Urban Form: Finding from SMARTRAQ,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 28 (2005): 117–25.
67. P. Slovic and others, “Risk as Analysis and Risk as Feelings: Some Thoughts about Affect, Reason, Risk,
and Rationality,” Risk Analysis 24, no. 2 (2004): 311–22; K. Witte, “Putting the Fear Back into Fear
Appeals: The Extended Parallel Process Model,” Communication Monographs 59 (1992): 329–49.
68. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (http://4parents.gov/ [October 29, 2007]).
69. Evans and Hastings, “Public Health Branding” (see note 21).
70. Evans, Price, and Blahut, “Evaluating the truth® Brand” (see note 9); Evans and others, “Systematic
Review of Public Health Branding” (see note 7).
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T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
Social Marketing Campaigns and Children’s Media Use
71. D. Holden and others, “Modeling Psychological Empowerment among Youth Involved in Local Tobacco
Control Efforts,” Health Education and Behavior 32, no. 2 (2005): 264–78.
72. A. Jordan and others, “Reducing Children’s Television-Viewing Time: A Qualitative Study of Parents and
Their Children,” Pediatrics 118, no. 5 (2006): 1303–10.
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W. Douglas Evans
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Children as Consumers: Advertising and Marketing
Children as Consumers: Advertising
and Marketing
Sandra L. Calvert
Summary
Marketing and advertising support the U.S. economy by promoting the sale of goods and services
to consumers, both adults and children. Sandra Calvert addresses product marketing to children
and shows that although marketers have targeted children for decades, two recent trends have
increased their interest in child consumers. First, both the discretionary income of children and
their power to influence parent purchases have increased over time. Second, as the enormous
increase in the number of available television channels has led to smaller audiences for each
channel, digital interactive technologies have simultaneously opened new routes to narrow cast to
children, thereby creating a growing media space just for children and children’s products.
Calvert explains that paid advertising to children primarily involves television spots that feature
toys and food products, most of which are high in fat and sugar and low in nutritional value.
Newer marketing approaches have led to online advertising and to so-called stealth marketing
techniques, such as embedding products in the program content in films, online, and in video
games.
All these marketing strategies, says Calvert, make children younger than eight especially vulnerable because they lack the cognitive skills to understand the persuasive intent of television and
online advertisements. The new stealth techniques can also undermine the consumer defenses
even of older children and adolescents.
Calvert explains that government regulations implemented by the Federal Communications
Commission and the Federal Trade Commission provide some protection for children from
advertising and marketing practices. Regulators exert more control over content on scarce
television airwaves that belong to the public than over content on the more open online spaces.
Overall, Calvert concludes, children live and grow up in a highly sophisticated marketing environment that influences their preferences and behaviors.
www.futureofchildren.org
Sandra L. Calvert is a professor and the chair of the Department of Psychology at Georgetown University. She is also the director of
the Children’s Digital Media Center.
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D
Sandra L. Calvert
uring the 1920s, U.S.
advertising leaders began
to see that a consumer
society would create larger
markets for the surplus
fruits of mass production.1 Aware that people
might not buy enough goods fast enough on
their own, advertisers adopted a strategy of
exploiting consumers’ feelings of inadequacy
and sought to market products as a means of
alleviating consumers’ negative self-image.
Their strategy succeeded beyond their greatest expectations.
both on how children of different ages—and,
more important, at different stages of cognitive development—perceive commercials in
different ways and on how advertising affects
children’s behaviors and attitudes. I turn then
to how families and parents may mediate the
impact of advertisements on their children
and discuss the commercialization that results
as marketers expand their presence in the
public schools. I conclude by considering
regulatory issues, including First Amendment
concerns.
Crucial to their success was the emergence
and eventual dominance of television in U.S.
homes.2 As the medium of television developed, advertisers quickly realized that they
could use it to bring products to the attention
of mass audiences, both young and old, and
thus deliver an enormous supply of children
and adults to businesses.
According to the American Marketing
Association, marketing is “an organizational
function and a set of processes for creating,
communicating, and delivering value to
customers and for managing customer
relationships in ways that benefit an organization and its stakeholders.”3 Using the “Four
Ps” of marketing—product, place, price, and
promotion—advertisers use paid public
presentations of goods and services in a
variety of media to influence consumers’
attention to, and interest in, purchasing
certain products.4
Today, marketing and advertising permeate
children’s daily lives. Many products marketed
to children are not healthful and promote
obesity. Younger children often do not
understand the persuasive intent of advertisements, and even older children probably have
difficulty understanding the intent of newer
marketing techniques that blur the line
between commercial and program content.
Relatively little government regulation
protects children from this highly commercialized environment.
In this article, I first examine trends that have
made children and youth an ever more attractive audience for marketers and advertisers
and then look at marketing and advertising
practices directed toward youth. I discuss
content analyses of foods and beverages, toys,
and alcohol and tobacco. I also examine the
effects of marketing on children, focusing
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T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
Marketing and Advertising
Television has long been the staple of advertising to children and youth.5 Children view
approximately 40,000 advertisements each
year.6 The products marketed to children—
sugar-coated cereals, fast food restaurants,
candy, and toys—have remained relatively
constant over time.7 But marketers are now
directing these same kinds of products to
children online.8
Targeting Youth
Although the kinds of products marketed to
children have remained much the same, the
buying power of children and adolescents has
increased exponentially over time.9 The
affluence of today’s children and adolescents
Children as Consumers: Advertising and Marketing
has made youth a market eminently worthy of
pursuit by businesses. Youths now have
influence over billions of dollars in spending
each year.10 In 2002, U.S. four- to twelve-yearolds spent $30 billion.11 American twelve- to
seventeen-year-olds spent $112.5 billion in
2003.12 In 2003, 33 million U.S. teens aged
twelve to nineteen each spent about $103 a
week.13 According to one report, parents
supply 87 percent of young children’s income.
That share drops to 37 percent for teens, who
have more of their own discretionary income.14
Youths also shape the buying
patterns of their families.
From vacation choices to car
purchases to meal selections,
they exert a tremendous power
over the family pocketbook.
Youths also shape the buying patterns of
their families.15 From vacation choices to car
purchases to meal selections, they exert a
tremendous power over the family pocketbook. Experts estimate that two- to fourteenyear-olds have sway over $500 billon a year
in household purchasing.16 Thus, to influence
youth is to influence the entire family’s buying decisions.
Rapid growth in the number of television stations and online venues has also led advertisers to market directly to children and youth.17
Because children and youth are heavy media
users and early adopters of newer technologies, media marketing and advertising
campaigns using both television and newer
media are efficient pathways into children’s
homes and lives.18 Although television is still
the preferred medium for reaching children
and youth, marketers are exploring how to
reach this age group online using cell phones,
iPods, game platforms, and other digital
devices. Banner ads, for example, which
resemble traditional billboard ads but market
a product across the top of an Internet page,
appear on most webpages.19 And “advergames” integrate products such as cereal and
candy into online video games to sell products to youth.20
In 2004, total U.S. marketing expenditures
were estimated at some $15 billion to target
products to children.21 Reliable estimates of
spending in the newer media are not available.22 Newer forms of marketing are a small
share of the overall marketing budget spent
on traditional print, broadcast, radio, and online advertising, but the share spent on these
newer forms is growing.23 Indeed, online venues can reap large returns for relatively small
investments. For example, Wild Planet Toys
spent $50,000 for a four-month online promotion that was associated with a doubling of
Wild Planet’s yearly revenues. A comparable
buy for a television advertising campaign
would have cost $2 million.24 And a recent
Nabisco World game and puzzle website
designed to increase awareness of Nabisco’s
cookies and crackers cost only 1 percent of
the company’s advertising and marketing
budget.25 Advertising on online games was
expected to grow from $77 million to about
$230 million between 2002 and 2007.26
Marketing Techniques
Marketers use a variety of techniques to
attract audiences to increase product purchases. Traditional marketing techniques in
television commercials include repetition,
branded characters, catchy and interesting
production features, celebrity endorsements,
and premiums (free merchandise that accompanies a product).
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Table 1. Television and Internet Marketing Techniques: Definitions and Use Patterns
Marketing technique
Definition
Used on
television
Used on
Internet
Repetition of the message
Repeating the same commercial message over and over.
x
x
Branded characters
Popular animated characters used to sell products ranging from
cereal to vacations.
x
x
Attention-getting production
features
Audio-visual production features such as action, sound effects, and
music.
x
x
Animation
Visually drawn moving images.
x
x
Celebrity endorsements
Popular actors, athletes, and musicians are either depicted on the
product itself or are shown using and approving of the product.
x
x
Premiums
Small toys or products that are offered with product purchase; for
example, a toy in a Happy Meal or screen savers for filling out an
online survey.
x
x
Product placement
Placing a product within program content so it does not seem to be
an advertisement; for example, E.T. eating the candy Reese’s Pieces.
x
x
Advergames
Online video games with subtle or overt commercial messages.
x
Viral marketing
The “buzz” about a product that is spread by word of mouth.
x
Tracking software and spyware
Software that makes it possible to collect data about time spent on
a website.
x
Online interactive agents
A virtual form of stealth advertising where robots are programmed to
converse with visitors to a website to maintain and increase interest
in the site and its products.
x
Integrated marketing strategies
Marketing products across different media; for example, the toy in a
cereal box is also a product placement in a film.
x
x
Video news releases
Circulated stories to news media about a product that are broadcast
as a news release.
x
x
In recent years advertisers have begun to
experiment with new techniques. One such
technique is stealth advertising, in which
marketers attempt to conceal the intent of an
ad.27 The theory behind the new technique is
that advertising is most effective when consumers do not recognize it as advertising.28
If consumers’ “guards” are down, they will
be more open to persuasive arguments about
the product. Using this approach, marketers
try to blur the line between the advertisement and the content. Stealth advertising
is allowed only in media like online venues,
however.29 In children’s television advertising, clear markers must separate commercial
content and program content.30
Marketers who practice stealth advertising
embed products within a program’s content,
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T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
use so-called viral (word-of-mouth) marketing, enable children to interact with online
characters who promote specific brands, disguise advertisements as video news releases,
and collect information from youth at online
sites.31 All these practices are designed to
create or enhance branded environments that
foster user loyalty.32
Repetition. Repetition involves simply repeating the same commercial message over and
over. The idea is that familiarity with a product increases the likelihood of purchasing and
using it.33
Attention-getting production features. Attention-getting production features are designed
to attract children’s interest in commercial
content.34 Such features, which are heavily
Children as Consumers: Advertising and Marketing
concentrated in children’s television advertisements, include action and movement,
rapid pacing, sound effects, and loud music.35
Branded characters and premiums. Successful
marketing campaigns often use branded
characters—that is, media characters that are
associated with a company, and hence promote its brand name—that appeal to children
and youth.36 Rights to use popular television
cartoon characters like Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob SquarePants, who are licensed for a fee to
various companies, help sell products ranging
from cereal to vacations, while animated
characters such as Tony the Tiger are spokesmen for a specific product, in this instance
Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes. Similarly, the Ronald
McDonald character is used to sell the
McDonald’s brand, including Happy Meals,
and has recently taken on a new role as a
physical fitness guru. Marketers associate the
products and activities they want to sell with
entertaining characters to increase interest in
those products.37 They use the same characters
in online marketing campaigns and in television advertisements. They also use premiums,
such as a small toy in a McDonald’s Happy
Meal, to increase product purchases by
children online and on television.38
Celebrity endorsements. Celebrity endorsements also help sell products.39 Athletes
are depicted on cereal boxes and appear
onscreen wearing and using specific athletic
clothes and gear. Children who like those
celebrities are expected to purchase these
products.
Product placement. Product placement was
first recognized as a successful marketing
technique when the character E.T. in Steven
Spielberg’s 1982 movie of the same name
ate Reese’s Pieces, resulting in a national
spike of 66 percent in product purchases.40
In television programs or movies, brands are
not only used by characters, but even become
characters. For instance, Charlie the Tuna,
Twinkie the Kid, and Mrs. Butterworth fight
against the evil brand X products in a film
titled FoodFight!.41 Such marketing exposure
increases a consumer’s familiarity with a
product and can result in a favorable opinion
of a brand.
Another form of product placement involves
websites whose sponsors put their logo
on the page. For instance, Bolt, a popular
website for teens, had a Pepsi logo on its
music page.42 Every time users go to the
music page, they are spending time with
Pepsi, thereby increasing their brand awareness. Corporations typically retain a product
placement agency for an annual fee; they
pay additional fees for each placement, with
the cost dependent on whether the product
simply appears or is used and labeled.43
Marketers also use product placement in
gaming. Traditional console games cannot be
changed, making them an expensive venue
for product placement.44 But online games,
which can be updated frequently, are more
suited for product placement.45 Although
gaming has historically been more popular
with boys than with girls,46 many companies
are now trying to get girls to play branded
games as well.47
To appeal to this now extensive gaming
audience, advertisers have developed advergames, online video games with a subtle or
overt commercial message where the use of
product placement is common.48 In advergames, marketers not only ensure that users’
eyes are on the embedded advertisement,
but also know how long the user is engaged
with the brand and can track the user’s exact
behavior. For example, whenever players run
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Sandra L. Calvert
over Coke cans in an arcade-style basketball
advergame called Live the Madness, their
performance is enhanced: they can run faster,
for example, or dunk the basketball.49 The
implicit message is that Coke will make you a
better athlete.
One of the most popular sites on the Web is
Candystand, sponsored by Kraft Entertainment. Fruit Stripe Photo Safari, the most
popular game in Candystand, allows players
to take photos of wildlife as the company promotes Fruit Stripe gum. These photos go into
an online album, and children gain bonus
points for taking “good pictures.”50 While fun
for children, the point of the game from the
marketers’ perspective is to create a website
where children will continue to play the game
and have extensive exposure to the products
on the website. Sites like neopets.com, which
are popular with preadolescent, or “tween,”
girls, also let children “buy” foods, such as Uh
Oh Oreo cookies, to feed their virtual pets
using points that they have earned by playing
games.51 All of these stealth techniques foster
immersive branding, potentially creating
favorable views and memories of specific
products.52
Marketers are increasingly building brand
awareness and loyalty through video games.53
A successful game means a successful product
as the consumer is engaged, interested, and
focused on the product.54 Now that games can
be downloaded, marketing can be transmitted
by cell phones and other digital devices.55
Viral marketing. Viral marketing is the “buzz”
created when people talk about a product to
one another, either in real or virtual conversation.56 Marketers use various forms of
viral marketing, including capitalizing on the
spontaneous talk about a popular website.
They also pay “alpha” kids to use a product
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T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
so that others will notice and want to buy it.57
The human touch by friends also escalates
sales. For instance, e-mail sent by friends forwarding information about a freebie from a
website is ten times more likely to be opened
than is unsolicited e-mail.58 Online chat and
other kinds of viral marketing are also used
to get the trust of gamers.59 Viral marketing is
especially effective with teens, particularly if
it involves big discounts, attractive products,
and meaningful freebies.60
Online interactive agents. Online interactive
agents are a virtual form of stealth advertising.
Marketers program robots, or bots, to reply
to surfers who initiate a conversation.61 Such
bots are programmed to respond to users in
a one-on-one relational way that builds brand
loyalty, as for instance, with virtual bartenders who “talk” to those who visit their sites.62
These alcohol-related websites feature humor,
games, and hip language to appeal to minors.63
Video news releases. Video news releases, in
which companies circulate stories about their
products, are a form of virtual advertising
that is used on television by every single news
organization.64 For instance, General Mills
will send out a news story about Cheerios
featuring a factory tour and a giant Cheerio
made just for the occasion.65 Video news
releases, which are cheaper than traditional
advertisements, are neither presented nor
labeled as advertisements, thus potentially
breaking down the more critical stance that
older viewers take when viewing an advertisement that they understand is trying to sell
them a product.
Integrated marketing strategies. Another new
marketing trend is the use of integrated marketing strategies, particularly with branded
characters driving interest across media platforms.66 Companies charge advertisers a fee
Children as Consumers: Advertising and Marketing
for licensing popular children’s characters for
multimedia applications in TV, books, CDROMs, games, and movies to sell products.67
Integrated marketing will use, for example,
SpongeBob the television character, who becomes a movie character who markets Burger
King products with SpongeBob premiums as
rewards for product purchases.68 Toys, both
large and small, are key to such marketing
campaigns.69 These strategies integrate different media, as well as different product lines
by tying food to toys.
Marketers are increasingly
building brand awareness and
loyalty through video games.
A successful game means a
successful product as the consumer is engaged, interested,
and focused on the product.
Tracking software and spyware. Not surprisingly, marketers want to know who is visiting
their websites to find out how effective their
marketing strategies are. Using so-called
cookies, or electronic bits of data placed on
a computer from a website, coupled with
registration forms to those sites, marketers
can create an extensive data file about each
individual user’s preferences for places and
products.70
Bolt has pioneered such activity by using
communication tools to enable users to interact with others or to create content. Three
million teens, 70 percent of whom live in the
United States, registered with their site in
just three years. Bolt uses supercomputers to
analyze the data provided by users and then
forecasts trends for marketers.71 Bolt also
sends information that individual teens want
at their website to their wireless devices such
as cell phones and pagers.72
Bolt users are aware of these data collection
practices, and Bolt does not sell individual data
to marketers. Other companies, however, have
been less scrupulous in their business practices with their online visitors. Some marketers
spy on their users by tracking what they do
online. Spyware is installed when files are
downloaded; these files are then inserted on
the user’s hard drive and send information
back to the marketer. In Netspeak, these are
called “E.T. applications” because they “phone
home” to report back what they learn about
the user. Such information, which can be
detailed and intrusive, includes the person’s
name, address, phone number, ad clicks, and
buying patterns. Adam Cohen describes these
applications as Trojan horses: they violate the
privacy of users, commandeering their own
computers to spy on them without their
knowledge. Applications that spy on users
include zBubbles, which helps users make
consumer decisions, DoubleClick, and even
SurfMonkey, a program that is supposed to
protect children when they are online. A
program called RealJukebox, which allowed
users to transfer music from the Web and CDs
to their PCs, also surreptitiously sent information back to RealNetworks about the kind of
music the person liked. This practice violated
the privacy of minors even though it was not
technically illegal. Privacy concerns were also
raised when DoubleClick purchased Abacus
Direct and attempted to link online knowledge
about consumers with traditional marketing
techniques where targeted product offers
would be delivered by the postal service.73
Marketers publicly say that user information
is used only in an aggregate form as supercomputers take all this data and analyze it for
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Sandra L. Calvert
consumer trends to get an advantage over
the market. Nevertheless, a company can use
this information to inform marketing strategies. For instance, the company can send
individual users different ads rather than
the same ones repeatedly, thereby avoiding
overexposure and maximizing interest and
potential sales. Moreover, some websites
state that their privacy policies can change
without notice.
In summary, although television is still the
dominant venue for advertising, marketers
are exploring new ways to market to children
and adolescents through online media and
wireless devices, often using stealth techniques whereby consumers are immersed in
branded environments, frequently without
knowing that they are being exposed to sophisticated marketing campaigns. Marketers
carefully analyze children’s and adolescents’
interest patterns, focusing on games for
“tweens,” as well as communication software
for teens. Tracking these patterns provides
extensive information that marketers now
analyze in aggregate form, but that can, in
the future, be used for one-on-one relational
marketing strategies directed at specific
individuals.
Content Analyses of Advertising
and Marketing Practices in
Children’s Media
Using content analysis, researchers examine
large samples of television programs and
online websites and games, focusing on the
nature of the products advertised, the production techniques used, and, in the case of
television advertisements, the length of the
commercials.
Program Content
Content analyses of children’s television
programs aired by major broadcasters have
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T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
for years revealed a heavy reliance on certain
key products: sugar-coated cereals, fast-food
restaurants, candy, soft drinks, and toys, and
even alcohol and tobacco.74 As cable became
more prevalent in U.S. households, researchers compared the kinds of products being
advertised on major national broadcasts, independent stations, and cable channels. They
found that 75 percent of all advertisements
they examined featured sugar-coated cereals,
sugared drinks and snacks, and fast foods.75
Sugar-coated cereals, snacks, and drinks
dominated advertisements on the major
broadcasters; toys, those on the independent
stations. The products advertised to children
on cable networks varied more widely than
those on the other two media and included
telephone services for children to call.
Content analyses of online marketing practices
reveal similar patterns. One study of children’s
online advergames found that sugar-coated
cereals dominated those sites and that advertisers used animation to provide a perceptually interesting and enjoyable online gaming
experience.76 A study of the nutritional value
of products on food websites, such as Lay’s
Potato Chips, found the food products high
in calories and low in nutritional value.77 In
an analysis of ten popular children’s websites,
Lisa Alvy and Sandra Calvert found that 70
percent of the sites marketed food and that
the food, including candy, sweetened breakfast cereals, snacks, and fast food, was high
in calories and low in nutritional value. The
sites used perceptually grabbing techniques,
including animation, bold and colorful text,
and branded characters.78
Tobacco advertisements were once prevalent
on radio and television. Because of the
documented health hazards of smoking, the
Federal Communications Commission
invoked the Fairness Doctrine in 1967,
Children as Consumers: Advertising and Marketing
requiring one public service announcement
to be run for every three tobacco ads; in
1970, a law banned tobacco advertising from
radio and television. Even so, characters in
television and films continue to smoke.79
Although tobacco can no longer be advertised
on television, one study found that the less
strictly regulated online world features
numerous tobacco and cigar sites and depicts
smoking as a hip activity. Advertisers use
virtual bartenders on alcohol-related sites to
create one-on-one relationships with youth.
The sites use games, humor, and hip language
to attract children and youth.80
Length of Commercials
The amount of time allocated to advertisements in children’s programs is regulated by
the Federal Communications Commission
(FCC).81 The implementation of the Children’s Television Act (CTA) by the FCC now
limits advertisements on children’s commercial television stations to 10.5 minutes an
hour on weekends and 12 minutes an hour on
weekdays, though these limits are frequently
violated. For instance, one in four of the 900
U.S. commercial television stations showed
more commercial material than allowed by
the CTA from 1992 through 1994; in 2004,
the FCC levied a $1 million fine against
Viacom and a $500,000 fine against Disney
for showing more commercial material than
allowed by the CTA.82
More than three decades ago, F. Earle Barcus
examined the share of airtime devoted to
commercials on two samples of children’s
programs, one collected in 1971 and the other
in 1975. In the 1971 sample, about 20 to 25
percent of the time in children’s Saturday
morning cartoons was allocated to advertising.
By 1975, political pressure on commercial
broadcasters from advocacy groups such as
Action for Children’s Television led the
National Association of Broadcasters to
reduce the share of commercial time on
children’s television programs to 15 percent.
But to keep the same number of advertisements, the airtime of individual commercials
was reduced from sixty to thirty seconds, with
the result that more commercials could be
screened in less time.83 Similarly, a study by
Although tobacco can no
longer be advertised on
television, one study found
that the less strictly regulated
online world ... depicts
smoking as a hip activity.
John Condry examined advertisements on
children’s television programs sampled in
1983, 1985, and 1987. Although the overall
time allocated to advertisements remained
the same, the number of ads increased
because the airtime of commercials had fallen
further to fifteen seconds.84 One study found
that the major national broadcasters showed
the most commercials and that cable channels
presented the fewest, in part reflecting the
fact that cable revenues include paid subscriptions as well as advertisements.85
Products marketed online are subject to
no time limits. Indeed, some of the online
children’s websites are built around specific
products, such as the silly rabbit from Trix
cereal, which means that 100 percent of the
time children play on these sites can be devoted to advertising. The advergames on these
sites encourage children to play with products
in a fun, enjoyable context.86 Such marketing
practices are not allowed on television.87
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Sandra L. Calvert
In summary, content analyses of both television and websites reveal a heavy marketing
focus on food products that are high in
calories and low in nutritional value. Marketers use perceptually salient production
techniques to attract attention and interest.
Branded characters designed to promote
specific products populate both television and
online sites. Considerable time is allocated to
advertising and marketing in children’s
television programming and now on children’s
websites, which are regulated by the Federal
Communications Commission and the
Federal Trade Commission though fewer
regulations exist for marketing on the Internet. Products that are banned from television
advertisements, such as smoking tobacco,
have migrated to their new online home.
How Marketing Practices Affect
Children
To explore how marketing affects children,
I turn first to theories of cognitive development that address age-based differences
in children’s understanding of commercial
content. I then examine empirical research
about children’s developing cognitive processes and about how exposure to advertising
and marketing affects behavior. The effects
of advertising and marketing depend on the
attention children pay to the advertisement,
how well they remember the content, and
how well they comprehend the advertiser’s
intent, as well as on their subsequent purchasing behavior.
Developmental Differences in Children’s
Learning from Media
One key area in research on the effect of
advertising on children has been analysis of
age-based changes in children’s ability to
understand commercial messages, particularly
their intent.88 Before they reach the age of
eight, children believe that the purpose of
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commercials is to help them in their purchasing decisions; they are unaware that commercials are designed to persuade them to buy
specific products.89 The shifts that take place
in children’s understanding of commercial
intent are best explained using theories of
cognitive development.
Developmental psychologists, as well as
researchers in communication and marketing,
often apply three stages of Jean Piaget’s
theory of cognitive development—preoperational thought, concrete operational thought,
and formal operational thought—to explain
age-based differences in how children
comprehend television content.90 During the
stage of preoperational thought, roughly from
age two to age seven, young children are
perceptually bound and focus on properties
such as how a product looks. Young children
also use animistic thinking, believing that
imaginary events and characters can be real.
For instance, during the Christmas season,
television is flooded with commercials that
foster an interest in the toys that Santa will
bring in his sleigh pulled by flying reindeer.
Young children “buy in” to these fantasies
and the consumer culture they represent.
Preoperational modes of thought put young
children at a distinct disadvantage in understanding commercial intent and, thus, in
being able to make informed decisions about
requests and purchases of products.91
With the advent of concrete operational
thought, between age seven and age eleven,
children begin to understand their world
more realistically. They understand, for example, that perceptual manipulations do not
change the underlying properties of objects.
More important, they begin to go beyond
the information given in a commercial and
grasp that the intent of advertisers is to sell
products. By the stage of formal operational
Children as Consumers: Advertising and Marketing
thought, about age twelve and upward, adolescents can reason abstractly and understand
the motives of advertisers even to the point of
growing cynical about advertising.
Building on Piaget’s theory, Deborah John
constructed a three-tiered model of consumer
socialization: the perceptual stage (roughly
age three to seven); the analytical stage
(roughly age seven to eleven); and the reflective stage (roughly age eleven to sixteen). The
perceptual stage is characterized by “perceptual boundness” as children focus on single
dimensions of objects and events, thereby
limiting their decision-making skills as
informed consumers. During the analytical
stage, as children gain the ability to analyze
products according to more than one dimension at a time, their knowledge of advertiser
techniques and brands becomes much more
sophisticated. During the reflective stage, a
mature understanding of products and
marketing practices results in a relatively
sophisticated knowledge of products and
advertiser intent. Even so, all children can
be influenced to purchase certain products
if the products are made attractive enough
to consumers.92
minds off the products for long. These developmental characteristics make them extremely vulnerable to commercial advertisements.
By the end of this stage, children replace
whining and throwing tantrums to get a
desired product with more effective negotiation. In early elementary school (five to eight
years), children reach the stage of adventure
and first purchases. They begin to make
clearer distinctions between what is real and
what is imaginary, their attention spans are
longer, and they make their first purchases
outside the company of their parents. In the
final stage (eight to twelve years), elementary
school children are attuned to their peer
groups’ opinions. Their critical skills to assess
products emerge, and their understanding
of others’ emotions improves considerably.
In the later years of this stage, interest shifts
from toys to more adult-like products, such
as music and sports equipment. Although
children’s consumer behaviors continue to
develop during the adolescent years, the
foundation is laid in these early years with a
progression from simple wants and desires to
a search to fulfill those desires to making independent choices and purchases to evaluating the product and its competition.93
Integrating a variety of different theoretical
perspectives, Patti Valkenburg and Joanne
Cantor advanced a developmental model
of how children become consumers. In the
first stage (birth to two years), toddlers and
infants have desires and preferences, but they
are not yet true consumers because they are
not yet truly goal-directed in their product
choices. During the second stage (two to five
years), preschoolers nag and negotiate, asking
for and even demanding certain products. At
this point in their development, young children do not understand the persuasive intent
of commercials; they focus on the attractive
qualities of products and cannot keep their
Fewer theories address the ways in which
commercial messages influence children in
interactive media exchanges. Research on
how children learn from interactive media
builds on developmental theories such as
those of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, both of
whom argued that knowledge is constructed
through interactions between the knower and
the known. Although such interactions do
occur as children view television and film,
including advertisements, they are different
in the newer interactive technologies, which
allow for greater user control and interchanges. Interactive technologies are based
on dialogue and turn-taking—a child takes a
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turn, then a computer responds and takes a
turn, then the child takes a turn again. In
essence, a conversation is taking place in
which each response made by a child leads to
potentially different content being shared.94
Learning takes place through contingent
replies, responsiveness to the user, and
turn-taking, tools that can enhance learning in
any kind of interaction, whether human or
simulated with intelligent artificial agents.95
The nature of the conversation that can take
place, however, depends on the child’s
developmental level. For instance, children
under age eight may well believe that they are
really interacting with branded characters
while older youth understand the differences
between what is real and what is imaginary.
Because interactive media incorporate and
build on a child’s actions, they have an edge
over traditional media like television in
tailoring their message. In particular, an
interactive medium is “smart” and can
potentially take into account each learner’s
knowledge base and adapt the message
accordingly. In an interactive medium,
advertisers can transmit their message
effectively by responding explicitly to the
user’s developmental level and knowledge
base—a distinct advantage when marketers
are trying to persuade a child or adolescent to
buy a product, particularly given the varying
knowledge bases during the childhood years.
The surreptitious presentation of messages
about products in online forums can also tap
into children’s implicit memory, which involves learning without conscious awareness.96
For example, embedding a marketed product
into entertaining content creates favorable
attitudes about that product without the user
even being aware.97 Precisely how implicit
processes influence consumer attitudes and
product choices awaits further study.
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The trend toward increased advertising online
makes children more vulnerable to marketing.
Once a television viewer watches an advertisement, that viewer must act on the message if a
product purchase is to occur. That action can
involve multiple steps: requesting the product
from a parent, pulling it from a shelf while
shopping with a parent, and making a purchase. The delay between seeing an advertisement and being in a store where the product
can be purchased is also a potential disruption
to a purchase. By contrast, newer interactive
interfaces involve a user directly in the
content; actions can range from clicking on
a television icon to transport a child directly
to a website where he can purchase the
advertised product,98 to having a cell phone
elicit purchase-oriented behaviors.99 In newer
technologies, the distinctions between the
commercial and program content can be
blurred in a seamless presentation. The time
between being exposed to the product and
purchasing it can also be greatly diminished.
These changes have major implications for
children, who are more vulnerable to commercial messages than adults are.
How Children Process Advertisements
To be effective, marketing campaigns must
get children to attend to the message, desire
a specific product, recognize and remember
that product, and purchase it.100 How well
children understand the persuasive intent
of advertisements also affects the success of
commercials.
Attention. Commercials that are designed
to attract and hold children’s attention are
characterized by lively action, sound effects,
and loud music.101 The animated character
Tony the Tiger, for example, bursts onto the
screen, proclaiming that Kellogg’s Frosted
Flakes are “GRRRRRREAT!!” One study
found that preschoolers paid more attention
Children as Consumers: Advertising and Marketing
Embedding a marketed
product into entertaining
content creates favorable
attitudes about that product
without the user even
being aware.
to commercials full of action, sound effects,
and loud music than to more low-key commercials.102 Audio features are particularly
important in gaining children’s attention.
Another study found that children aged
three to eight were more attentive to commercials that were higher in audio than in
video complexity.103 Audio features have
more recruiting power than visual features
because interesting sounds can get children
who are not looking at the television screen
to direct their visual attention to it. These
findings are consistent with Piaget’s insight
that young children are especially focused on
the attention-getting perceptual qualities of
presentations.
Children’s patterns of attention help reveal
how well they can make distinctions between
the commercial and the television program.
In one study, researchers trained mothers
to examine their children’s visual attention
to Saturday morning cartoons and advertisements. The mothers reported that the
younger children (five to eight) continued
to pay attention when a commercial came
on but that children older than eight looked
away. The older children’s awareness of the
break in the content suggests that they are
less susceptible than the younger children to
the effects of advertising.104
Recognition and retention. Advertisers use
visual and auditory production techniques
and repetition to enhance children’s memory
of the content. One study found that preschool, kindergarten, and second-grade
children remembered food products that had
been advertised audiovisually or visually
better than they remembered products
presented in an audio version only.105 Advertisers use catchy auditory features, such as
jingles, repetitively in commercials to reach
child audiences.106 Song lyrics and rhymes can
replay in children’s heads, leading to automatic rehearsal and memory of content.107
When children are shown the same commercial repeatedly, they are more likely to remember the product advertised.108 Repetition also
undermines children’s, even older children’s,
defenses against product messages.109
Comprehension of commercial intent. As
noted, children younger than age eight do
not understand that the intent of commercials is to persuade them to buy one product
over another; instead they see commercials
as a means of informing them about the
vast number of attractive products that they
can buy.110 In a key study demonstrating the
developmental advance during middle childhood, Thomas Robertson and John Rossiter
questioned first-, third-, and fifth-grade boys
about their understanding of commercials.
Only half of the first-grade boys understood
the persuasive intent of commercials, as
against 87 percent of third graders and 99
percent of fifth graders.111
Product requests and purchases. What
aspects of exposure to commercial messages
lead to product requests? Researchers have
found that repetition, in particular, increases
children’s requests for, and purchases of,
specific food, beverage, and toy products.112
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One study, for example, measured three- to
eleven-year-old children’s overall exposure
to advertisements at home and to specific
advertisements in their laboratory. They then
had children visit a mock grocery store with a
parent. Children who were exposed to more
overall advertisements at home and who were
most attentive to advertisements in the laboratory setting made the most requests for the
advertised products.113
For both younger and older children, not every request for a product leads to a purchase.
Being denied a product can lead to conflict
between parent and child.115 For instance,
Aitkin found that when parents denied
children’s requests for products, children
who were heavy viewers argued about the
purchase 21 percent of the time, while light
viewers argued only 9 percent of the time.116
Advertisers call this the “nag factor.”
Another purported, though
rarely studied, outcome
of children’s commercial
exposure is an increased
emphasis on materialism
among younger children.
In a review of research, one study found
a causal relationship between children’s
viewing of television commercials and their
pestering parents in the grocery store.117 As
suggested by the model created by Valkenburg and Cantor, “pester power” seems to be
a preferred tactic of young children.118 For
example, four- to six-year-olds rely on nagging, crying, and whining to get their parents
to buy them products.119
Premiums—bonus toys and treats that
accompany the product—also increase
children’s product requests. For instance,
Charles Aitkin found that 81 percent of
mothers thought that premiums influenced
their children’s cereal selections. The more
children watched Saturday morning television programs, which are saturated with cereal commercials, the more children wanted
the cereals that contained premiums.114
Free downloads such as screen savers serve
similar functions in newer technologies, but
researchers have not yet fully examined the
effects of such practices.
Children can also become cynical as they begin to understand the underlying persuasive
messages of advertisements. For example,
sixth and eighth graders who understand
more about commercial practices, such as using celebrity endorsements, are more cynical
about the products.120 Even so, children who
are repeatedly exposed to attractive messages about “fun” products still want them,
even if they are aware of advertiser selling
techniques.121 The implication is that even
though children—and adults too, for that
matter—may know that something is not
what it seems, that does not stop them from
wanting it.
Does Exposure to Advertising Affect
Children’s Behavior?
Exposing children to commercial messages
can lead to negative outcomes, including
parent-child conflict, cynicism, obesity, and
possibly materialistic attitudes.
Because so many advertisements targeted to
children are for foods that are high in calories
and low in nutritional value, concerns have
been raised that food advertisements are
partly to blame for children being overweight
and obese.122 A comprehensive review of
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Children as Consumers: Advertising and Marketing
the empirical literature on food advertising,
conducted by a National Academies panel
that was charged by Congress to investigate
the role of marketing and advertising in childhood obesity, concluded that television food
advertisements affect children’s food preferences, food requests, and short-term eating
patterns. The panel was unable, however,
to conclude that television food advertising
had causal effects on child obesity, because
the data were, by necessity, correlational,
not causal—one cannot ethically conduct
research to cause some children to become
overweight and obese.123 Research on the
effect of newer forms of food marketing on
obesity, such as practices that take place online, is notably lacking.
Another purported, though rarely studied,
outcome of children’s commercial exposure
is an increased emphasis on materialism
among younger children. Preadolescent girls,
for example, are now purchasing more and
more clothing, make-up, and other products
that were formerly targeted to an adolescent
teen market.124 An American Psychological
Association task force has argued that heavy
advertising and marketing campaigns are
leading to the sexualization and exploitation
of young girls.
The Potential Mediating Role of
Families and Parents
Children, particularly young children, are
exposed to advertising and marketing primarily within the family home. Moreover,
parents provide the financial resources that
allow their children to purchase products.125
How parents handle their children’s exposure
to advertising and their requests for products
can be influential in shaping the way their
children respond to advertised products and
how advertising affects children’s developmental outcomes.
Parents can be involved in their children’s
television viewing in three ways. In coviewing,
parents simply watch programs with their
children without discussing content; in active
mediation (also called instructive guidance),
parents discuss the program with their children to help them understand the content or
the intent of advertisements; and in restrictive mediation, parents control the amount or
kind of content that their children view.126
Although studies are sparse, researchers have
demonstrated that both active mediation and
restrictive mediation can reduce children’s
requests for advertised products. One study,
for example, manipulated mothers’ use of
information to influence eight- to ten-yearold children’s interest in advertised products.
Mothers responded to their sons’ exposure
to toy commercials using power-assertion
(restrictive mediation), reasoning (active
mediation), and no information (coviewing). Mothers had little influence over boys’
choices regarding highly attractive advertised
products regardless of which response they
made to their children’s exposure to advertising. By contrast, those mothers who used
reasoning techniques were able to affect
whether the boys chose moderately attractive products. In short, all forms of parental
mediation appear powerless in the face of a
child’s choice of a highly attractive product,
but reasoning, an active mediation approach,
can affect the choice of a moderately attractive product.127
Restrictive mediation, in which parents
enforce rules about television use, can also
diminish children’s requests for products. For
example, Leonard Reid found that children
whose parents restricted their television
viewing made fewer requests at home for
advertised products, presumably because
they had learned that their requests would
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be denied.128 Put another way, families create
tacit rules about television advertising beyond
the commercial itself, and those rules influence how children behave.
Coviewing with children does not appear to
be effective in countering the effect of advertising. One study explains that when parents
view the content with their children, children take their parents’ silence as an implicit
endorsement of the content.129 Parents thus
need to influence actively how their children,
particularly young children, perceive advertisements. But apathy, rather than vigilance,
appears to be the norm for parents when children are viewing television commercials.130
Marketing in Schools
Because the proliferation of media channels
has reduced the average audience size for
children’s programs, marketers have turned to
schools as a way to maximize their audience
for commercial messages.131 And many
financially strapped schools are open to
multibillion dollar contracts with businesses.132
Neither schools nor states typically regulate
commercial activities in schools.133
Principals, who are often the gatekeepers to
their schools, generally see commercialism
as a way to improve their schools, as well as
their students’ educational outcomes. For
example, one study found that high school
principals in North Carolina did not believe
that their students were unduly influenced by
corporate advertising in their schools. Moreover, most principals said that they would
continue the relationship with their corporate sponsor even if funds were available for
school activities.134
The commercialization of schools includes
such practices as in-school advertisements,
the sale of “competitive” foods (those
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from vending machines, fast food outlets,
and school fundraisers that compete with
cafeteria food), and corporate-sponsored
educational materials. Efforts to counter the
effects of commercial messages are limited
by children’s age and cognitive level. Schools
have used media literacy programs with some
success for older children, but the messages
of these programs may be muted when they
are embedded in a heavily commercialized
school environment.
Television and Internet Advertisements
in the Classroom
Established in 1990, Channel One broadcasts
ten minutes of news designed specifically for
adolescents as well as two minutes of commercial messages (86 percent of the messages
are for commercial products, 14 percent for
public service announcements) into 370,000
classrooms every school day.135 In exchange
for a captive audience of approximately 8
million U.S. school children,136 Channel One
provides free video equipment and satellite
connections to each classroom in participating schools, many of which would be unable
to pay for such technology otherwise.137 Early
on, Channel One was banned by several
states, including California, Massachusetts,
North Carolina, and Washington, for promoting a commercial atmosphere in schools.138
But students in some 12,000 schools, 38 percent of all U.S. middle and high schools, now
view Channel One, and 1,000 more schools
expect to begin airing Channel One in the
next few years.139 An associated website,
Channelone.com, is also available.140
An early content analysis of Channel One
television advertisements, conducted by Tim
Wulfemeyer and Barbara Mueller, found that
the most frequently advertised products were
jeans, candy, shampoo, make-up, gum, razor
blades, breath mints, acne cream, deodorant,
Children as Consumers: Advertising and Marketing
athletic shoes, corn chips, catsup, movies, and
cough drops. The food products were all low
in nutritional value. Classroom observations,
however, revealed that students paid little
attention to the advertisements and chose
instead to talk, joke, and look around
the room.141
Because the proliferation of
media channels has reduced
the average audience size
for children’s programs,
marketers have turned to
schools as a way to maximize
their audience for commercial messages.
Other studies, however, have found that commercials on Channel One do affect students.
Bradley Greenberg and Jeffrey Brand compared high school students who had been
exposed to Channel One for a year and a half
with a control group who had not been so exposed. They found that the students who had
viewed Channel One commercials in their
classrooms evaluated the advertised products
more favorably, stated that they intended to
purchase them more (though they did not in
reality do so), and had more materialistic attitudes than the control students who did not
watch Channel One. The findings suggest that
viewing Channel One commercials does influence the audience, though the effects seem to
be more on student attitudes about the products than on their purchasing behaviors.142
According to Claire Atkinson, Channel One’s
advertising revenue has been declining of
late, dropping 11 percent in 2003 and an ad-
ditional 12 percent in 2004. The declines are
attributable in part to the decision by Kraft
Foods to eliminate all in-school marketing
effective July 2003. In part because of the
nation’s obesity epidemic, food marketers
such as Kraft Foods and Kellogg’s are repositioning their portfolios and messages to more
healthful ones, thereby undermining the
financial base of Channel One. Although still
profitable, Channel One faces the additional
financial pressure of upgrading to digital
equipment.143
The company Zap Me offers middle schools
and high schools fifteen computers plus
Internet connections, printers, and access to
educational websites in exchange for using
the equipment for a minimum of four hours
daily. In 2000, Zap Me had been installed in
approximately 9 percent (1,800) of U.S. secondary schools. Advertisements are shown on
the computer screen, and tracking equipment
is available on the computers.144 As soon as
students log into the computer, the system
knows the user’s age, sex, and zip code.145
Students’ privacy is an issue as marketers are
able to gather very explicit information about
individual product preferences, though Zap
Me claims to look at data only in an aggregate
form.146 Because of the commercial aspects of
Zap Me, some school districts refuse the free
equipment.147
Competitive Foods
Competitive foods from vending machines,
snack bars, and school fundraisers are available in schools but are not part of the federal
school lunch, school breakfast, or after-school
snack program. Although a major source of
revenue for schools, competitive foods are
often high in calories and low in nutritional
value, thereby creating concerns that these
marketing practices contribute to the current obesity epidemic.148 Pouring contracts,
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in which specific companies have exclusive
rights to sell soda, other beverages, and
snacks in vending machines, are a controversial practice in schools.149
created nutritional standards for competitive
foods.153 Some school districts now have more
stringent food standards than do federal or
state laws.154
Some three-quarters of high schools, half of
middle schools, and one-third of elementary
schools have exclusive pouring contracts with
a company. In return, the schools receive a
specific share of sales or incentives such as
equipment once they reach a certain level of
sales. Obtaining maximum benefits from a
pouring contract thereby contributes to an increasingly commercial school atmosphere.150
Commercial Educational Classroom
Materials
A final marketing practice within schools
involves the content that children read.
Specifically, businesses donate industrysponsored educational materials to schools to
supplement the curriculum.155 For example,
students may encounter industry-sponsored
content such as Domino’s Pizza Encounter
Math or the Oreo Cookie Counting Book.156
Such material often provides biased or
incomplete information on a topic, making it
misleading at best when presented as educational material.
Fast-food restaurants also negotiate contracts
to sell food to youth in school. Branded fastfood restaurants such as Taco Bell, Pizza Hut,
and Subway operate in about 20 percent of
high schools.151 One study found that in addition to negotiating contracts within schools in
Chicago, fast-food chains placed restaurants
within easy walking distance to schools. Such
placements, according to the study, expose
children to foods of poor nutritional quality,
because youth consume more fat, sugars,
and sugared drinks and fewer fruits and
vegetables on days when they eat at fast-food
restaurants.152
Fundraisers whose proceeds allow students
to purchase uniforms or go on school trips
are also part of the marketing landscape of
everyday school life, as are the logos that
companies place on uniforms, school billboards, and athletic scoreboards in exchange
for donating resources to schools.
Although pouring contracts, fast-food restaurant contracts, and fundraisers generate substantial income and are common in
middle and high schools, some state legislatures and school districts, such as those
in California, have outlawed them or have
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Media Literacy Training Programs
Media literacy training involves school-based
efforts to teach children to understand media
conventions, such as advertising techniques.
The programs are effective with older children, but not with children younger than
age eight, who do not understand persuasive
intent.157
In one effective consumer education program created by Donald Roberts and several
colleagues, fourth, sixth, and eighth graders viewed either The Six Billion $$$ Sell
or a control film. Children who viewed the
treatment film, which taught advertising
techniques, were more skeptical about advertisements immediately after viewing the film
and were more sophisticated in understanding and applying advertising techniques one
week later. The researchers found similar,
though somewhat less strong, effects for
second, third, and fifth graders who viewed
Seeing through Commercials compared with
students who viewed a control film.158
Children as Consumers: Advertising and Marketing
Using strategies from mediation research,
another study examined an alcohol-related
media literacy program. Third graders who
were exposed to the program understood the
persuasive intent of the commercials, were
less interested in imitating the characters,
and had more negative views of drinking
alcohol than did those in the control group.159
Regulation of Marketing Practice
Because of age-based limits in children’s
ability to understand advertiser intent, the
Federal Communications Commission has
placed safeguards into the television advertising marketplace to protect young child
audiences. Among the guidelines is the
separation principle, which consists of three
components. First, the transitions between
an advertisement and the program content
must be distinct; the program must use a
constant production convention, such as
“After these messages, we’ll be right back,”
to separate program and commercial content.
Second, “host selling” is not allowed. That is,
the main characters on a television program
cannot sell products during that program or
during blocks of commercial time adjacent to
it. And, third, products being sold cannot be
integrated into program content (a practice that resembles the common practice of
product placements).160 In addition, the FCC
has limited the time allocated to commercial
content during a given hour of children’s
programs. It also requires “tombstone shots”
that show the unadorned product in a still
frame shot without all the extra toys that can
be purchased with it.161
While the FCC is charged with regulating
media, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
is charged with regulating advertising.162 The
Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU),
a voluntary regulatory organization created by
the advertising industry, enforces broadcast
standards for the industry, in part to prevent
governmental interference. Although CARU
has made some attempt to regulate the newer
interactive technology marketing practices,
many of its rules have not carried over to the
Internet, video games, or cell phones. For
example, websites attempt to create “sticky
sites” where users spend long periods of time
with branded characters.163 Such sites feature
Tony the Tiger from Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes
or Chester the Cheetah for Frito-Lay and
create content focused solely on commercially branded products.164
Early studies of online marketing practices
documented the use of deceptive practices
that invaded the privacy of children. For
instance, popular media characters, such as
Batman, would ask children for personally
identifying information for a census that was
being taken in Gotham City.165 Did children
even understand that Batman was not real?
No research has been conducted to answer
that question, yet the developmental literature from the television area suggests that
young children may not understand that such
characters are not really interacting with them.
Such practices led Congress to pass the
Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act
(COPPA) of 1998, which placed rules on
online marketing techniques to protect the
privacy of children under age thirteen.166
The new law, which went into effect in 2000,
authorized the Federal Trade Commission
to create and enforce rules for data collection practices at children’s websites and to
disclose privacy policies about data collection
techniques as well as about how that information was to be used.167
After COPPA was implemented, several
agencies, including the FTC, the Center for
Media Education, and the Annenberg Public
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Sandra L. Calvert
Policy Center, conducted an evaluation of
website practices.168 All these studies found
that the majority of websites linked their
home page to their privacy policy. But the
studies found fewer efforts to obtain parental
consent or to inform parents about how the
data collected on the site would be used.169
Although researchers now have a reasonably
good idea of what takes place on online websites, they still know little about how children
perceive, understand, or participate when
asked for personally identifying information.
No database as yet documents such information on the part of child consumers of different ages.
Spyware in which an outside agent installs a
program on a user’s hard drive, collects information about that user’s behaviors without
his knowledge, and then sends that information back to a marketer also poses risks that
may one day cause spyware to be subjected
to regulation by the FTC.170 Spyware invades
privacy, poses security risks, including identity theft, and can cause computers to crash,
be subject to barrages of pop-up ads, and run
slowly.171
Regulators should also address the issue of
whether and how to make the regulation of
newer online marketing activities consistent
with traditional television and film guidelines.
Such existing television standards as clear separation of commercial from program content,
rules about host selling, consideration of agebased skills in understanding marketer intent,
tombstone shots of the unadorned product
when the camera shot is still, and limits on
the amount of time children can spend seeing
marketed content should be considered in
the context of newer media. Product placement, the emerging and perhaps preferred
replacement of the fifteen- or thirty-second
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commercial, is also in need of additional study
and regulation. With convergence increasingly
bringing the varying forms of technologies
together under one umbrella, it is sensible
to have uniform standards for marketing to
children across varying media platforms.
Ultimately, though, all of these practices
have some protection because of the First
Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech.
Although advertisers do not enjoy the same
freedom as everyday citizens in their right
to speak as they wish, they have considerable leeway to present the content that they
wish, and it is up to advocacy groups to
demonstrate that any regulation is necessary.
Indeed, the Central Hudson Test, the primary legal argument for limiting commercial
speech, has been interpreted in recent years
as calling for the least amount of interference in the advertisers’ right to speak as they
wish.172 Moreover, in many cases the online
environment is not even constrained by U.S.
law. Setting up an online shop in a different
country, for example, can insulate users from
prosecution for violating a number of laws
that they would have to follow within the
United States.173
Conclusion
Marketing to children and adolescents is a
way of life in the United States. Children
have both their own disposable income and
influence over what their parents buy, and
marketers attempt to determine how those
dollars are spent. Television now reaps most
of the advertising dollars, but newer technologies are providing new ways for marketers to
reach children. Marketing practices such as
repetition, branded environments, and free
prizes are effective in attracting children’s
attention, making products stay in their memory, and influencing their purchasing choices.
Immature cognitive development, however,
Children as Consumers: Advertising and Marketing
limits the ability of children younger than
eight to understand the persuasive intent of
commercials. Thus, public policy regulates
how advertisers can interact with children via
television. Online environments are now and
probably always will be less heavily regulated
than more traditional media. Although marketing and advertising fuel the U.S. economy,
the cost of that economic success requires
considerable scrutiny.
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225
Sandra L. Calvert
Endnotes
1. L. Mazur, “Marketing Madness,” E Magazine: The Environmental Magazine 7, no. 3 (1996).
2. E. Wartella and M. Robb, “The History of Media Issues,” in Blackwell Handbook of Child Development
and the Media, edited by S. L. Calvert and B. J. Wilson (Boston: Wiley-Blackwell, forthcoming).
3. American Marketing Association, www.marketingpower.com/content4620.php (retrieved March 18, 2007).
4. Institute of Medicine, Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity?, edited by J. M.
McGinnis, J. A. Gootman, and V. I. Kraak (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2006).
5. Ibid.
6. D. Kunkel, “Children and Television Advertising,” in Handbook of Children and the Media, edited by D.
Singer and J. Singer (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 2001).
7. F. E. Barcus, “The Nature of Television Advertising to Children,” in Children and the Faces of Television:
Television, Violence, Selling, edited by E. Palmer and A. Dorr (New York: Academic Press, 1980), pp.
273–85; G. Comstock, with H. Paik, Television and the American Child (New York: Academic Press,
1991); D. Kunkel and W. Gantz, “Children’s Television Advertising in the Multi-channel Environment,”
Journal of Communication 42, no. 3 (1992): 134–52.
8. L. Alvy and S. L. Calvert, “Food Marketing on Popular Children’s Websites: A Content Analysis,” Journal
of the American Dietetic Association, forthcoming; E. Moore, It’s Child’s Play: Advergaming and the
Online Marketing of Food to Children (Menlo Park, Calif.: Kaiser Family Foundation, 2006); D. Siegel,
T. Coffee, and G. Livingston, The Great Tween Buying Machine: Marketing to Today’s Tweens (Ithaca,
N.Y.: Paramount Market Publishing, Inc., 2001); K. Weber, M. Story, and L. Harnack, “Internet Food
Marketing Strategies Aimed at Children and Adolescents: A Content Analysis of Food and Beverage
Brand Web Sites,” Journal of American Dietetic Association 106, no. 9 (2006): 463–66.
9. Institute of Medicine, Food Marketing to Children and Youth (see note 4).
10. Economist, “Youth, Inc.,” Economist 357 (2001): 8202.
11. J. B. Schor, Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture (New York: Scribner,
2004).
12. Media Research, Inc., accessed at www.magazine.org/content/files/teenprofile04.pdf, October 9, 2007.
13. M. Cardona, “High School Paper Group to Take Ads,” Advertising Age 75, no. 13 (2004).
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15. D. Kunkel and others, Report of the APA Task Force on Advertising and Children: Psychological Issues in
the Increasing Commercialization of Childhood (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association,
2004); Institute of Medicine, Food Marketing to Children and Youth (see note 4).
16. Institute of Medicine, Food Marketing to Children and Youth (see note 4).
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Aids—and Propaganda Galore,” BusinessWeek, June 30, 1997. Retrieved September 14, 2004, from www.
businessweek.com/1997/26/b35339.htm.
22 6
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Children as Consumers: Advertising and Marketing
18. D. Roberts, U. Foehr, and V. Rideout, Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year-Olds (Menlo Park,
Calif.: Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, 2005).
19. Alvy and Calvert, “Food Marketing on Popular Children’s Websites” (see note 8); Weber, Story, and
Harnack, “Internet Food Marketing Strategies Aimed at Children and Adolescents” (see note 8).
20. E. Moore, It’s Child’s Play (see note 8).
21. Institute of Medicine, Marketing Food to Children and Youth (see note 4); Schor, Born to Buy (see note
11).
22. D. Eisenberg and others, “It’s an Ad, Ad, Ad, Ad World,” Time 160, no.10 (2002).
23. Ibid.
24. E. Gardner, “Understanding the Net’s Toughest Customer,” Internet World 6, no. 3 (2000).
25. Ibid.
26. A. Mack, “Gaming Scores with Advertisers,” Media Week 14, no. 26 (2004).
27. E. Gardner, “Understanding the Net’s Toughest Customer” (see note 24).
28. D. Eisenberg and others, “It’s an Ad, Ad, Ad, Ad World” (see note 22).
29. Ibid.
30. Federal Communications Commission, “Children’s Television Programs: Report and Policy Statement,”
Federal Register 39 (November 6, 1974), pp. 39396–39409.
31. A. Cohen, “Spies among Us,” Time Digital 5, no. 3; E. Gardner, “Understanding the Net’s Toughest
Customer” (see note 24); L. Mazur, “Marketing Madness” (see note 1).
32. S. L. Calvert, “Future Faces of Selling to Children,” in The Faces of Televisual Media, edited by E. L.
Palmer and B. M. Young (Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum, 2003); K. Montgomery, “Digital Kids: The New OnLine Children’s Consumer Culture,” in Handbook of Children and the Media, edited by D. Singer and
J. Singer (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 2001).
33. S. Auty and C. Lewis, “The ‘Delicious Paradox’: Preconscious Processing of Product Placements by Children,” in The Psychology of Entertainment Media: Blurring the Lines between Entertainment and Persuasion, edited by L. J. Shrum (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004), pp.117–33.
34. A. C. Huston and J. C. Wright, “Public Policy and Children’s Television,” American Psychologist 44
(1983): 424–33.
35. D. Greer and others, “The Effects of Television Commercial Form and Commercial Placement on
Children’s Social Behavior and Attention,” Child Development 53 (1982): 611–19; R. Welch and others,
“Subtle Sex-Role Cues in Children’s Commercials,” Journal of Communication 29 (1979): 202­–09.
36. Institute of Medicine, Marketing Food to Children and Youth (see note 4).
37. D. Kunkel and others, Report of the APA Task Force on Advertising and Children (see note 15).
38. S. L. Calvert, Children’s Journeys through the Information Age (Boston: McGraw Hill, 1999).
VOL. 18 / NO. 1 / S PR ING 2008
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Sandra L. Calvert
39. Ibid.
40. Mazur, “Marketing Madness” (see note 1).
41. D. Eisenberg and others, “It’s an Ad, Ad, Ad, Ad World” (see note 22).
42. D. Handelman, “Dan Pelson,” Brandweek 41, no. 32 (2000).
43. L. Mazur, “Marketing Madness” (see note 1).
44. A. Mack, “Gaming Scores with Advertisers” (see note 26).
45. Ibid.
46. K. Subrahmanyam and others, “The Impact of Computer Use on Children’s and Adolescents’ Development,” in Children in the Digital Age: Influences of Electronic Media on Development, edited by S. L.
Calvert, A. B. Jordan, and R. R. Cocking (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2002), pp. 3–33.
47. Mack, “Gaming Scores with Advertisers” (see note 26).
48. D. Eisenberg and others, “It’s an Ad, Ad, Ad, Ad World”(see note 22).
49. Mack, “Gaming Scores with Advertisers” (see note 26).
50. Gardner, “Understanding the Net’s Toughest Customer” (see note 24).
51. D. Fonda and E. Rosten, “Pitching It to Kids,” Time 163, no. 26 (2004).
52. Calvert, “Future Faces of Selling to Children” (see note 32).
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no. 6 (1998).
54. Mack, “Gaming Scores with Advertisers” (see note 26).
55. Calvert, “Future Faces of Selling to Children” (see note 32).
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57. Handelman, “Dan Pelson” (see note 42).
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60. R. Rubin, “Kids vs. Teens: Money and Maturity Guide to Online Behavior” (see note 14).
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62. W. Williams, K. Montgomery, and S. Pasnik, Alcohol and Tobacco on the Web: New Threats to Youth
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63. Ibid.
64. Mazur, “Marketing Madness” (see note 1).
65. Ibid.
22 8
T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
Children as Consumers: Advertising and Marketing
66. K. Kelly, “Kid Power,” U.S. News and World Report 137, no. 8 (2004).
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68. Institute of Medicine, Food Marketing to Children and Youth (see note 4).
69. S. L. Calvert, Interactive Advertising Strategies, presentation to the Institute of Medicine Children’s Food
Marketing Panel (Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Sciences, November 2004).
70. Cohen, “Spies among Us” (see note 31).
71. Handelman, “Dan Pelson” (see note 42).
72. Ibid.
73. Cohen, “Spies among Us” (see note 31).
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75. Kunkel and Gantz, “Children’s Television Advertising in the Multi-channel Environment” (see note 7).
76. Moore, It’s Child’s Play (see note 8).
77. Weber, Story, and Harnack, “Internet Food Marketing Strategies Aimed at Children and Adolescents (see
note 8).
78. Alvy and Calvert, “Food Marketing on Popular Children’s Websites” (see note 8).
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80. W. Williams, K. Montgomery, and S. Pasnik, Alcohol and Tobacco on the Web: New Threats to Youth
(Washington, D.C.: Center for Media Education, 1997).
81. Federal Communications Commission, “Children’s Television Programs: Report and Policy Statement”
(see note 30).
82. S. L. Calvert, “The Children’s Television Act,” in Blackwell Handbook of Child Development and the
Media, edited by S. L. Calvert and B. Wilson (Boston: Wiley-Blackwell, forthcoming).
83. Barcus, “The Nature of Television Advertising to Children” (see note 7).
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85. Kunkel and Gantz, “Children’s Television Advertising in the Multi-Channel Environment” (see note 7).
86. Moore, It’s Child’s Play (see note 8).
87. Federal Communications Commission, “Children’s Television Programs: Report and Policy Statement”
(see note 30).
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88. Kunkel and others, Report of the APA Task Force on Advertising and Children (see note 15).
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100. Calvert, Children’s Journeys through the Information Age (see note 38).
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109. J. Rossiter and D. Robertson, “Children’s Television Commercials: Testing the Defenses,” Journal of
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113. J. P. Galst and M. A. White, “The Unhealthy Persuader: The Reinforcing Value of Television and Children’s
Purchase Attempts at the Supermarket,” Child Development 47 (1976): 1089–96.
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117. L. McDermott and others, “International Food Advertising, Pester Power, and Its Effects,” International
Journal of Advertising 25, no. 4 (2006): 513–39.
118. Valkenburg and Cantor, “The Development of a Child into a Consumer” (see note 91).
119. D. M. Weiss and J. Sachs, “Persuasive Strategies Used by Pre-school Children,” Discourse Processes 14
(1991): 55–72.
120. D. M. Boush, M. Friedstad, and G. M. Rose, “Adolescent Skepticism toward TV Advertising and Knowledge
of Advertiser Tactics,” Journal of Consumer Research 21 (1994): 165–75.
121. Rossiter and Robertson, “Children’s Television Commercials” (see note 109).
122. Kunkel and others, Report of the APA Task Force on Advertising and Children (see note 15).
123. Institute of Medicine, Food Marketing to Children and Youth (see note 4).
124. Zurbriggen and others, Executive Summary: APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls (2007).
Retrieved July 25, 2007, from www.apa.org/pi/wpo/sexualization.html.
125. B. Young, “Media and Advertising Effects,” in Blackwell Handbook of Child Development and the Media,
edited by S. L. Calvert and B. Wilson (Boston: Wiley-Blackwell, forthcoming).
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126. A. Nathanson and J. Chakroff, “Parent and School Interventions: Mediation and Media Literacy,” in Blackwell Handbook of Child Development and the Media, edited by S. L. Calvert and B. Wilson (Boston: WileyBlackwell, forthcoming); P. Valkenburg and others, “Developing a Scale to Assess Three Styles of Television
Mediation: ‘Instructive Mediation,’ ‘Restrictive Mediation,’ and ‘Social Coviewing,’” Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 43, no. 1 (1999): 52–56; Young, “Media and Advertising Effects” (see note 125).
127. V. K. Prasad, T. R. Rao, and A. A. Sheikh, “Mother vs. Commercial,” Journal of Communication 28
(Winter 1978): 91–96.
128. L. N. Reid, “Viewing Rules as Mediating Factors of Children’s Responses to Commercials,” Journal of
Broadcasting 23 (1979): 15–26.
129. Nathanson and Chakroff, “Parent and School Interventions: Mediation and Media Literacy” (see note 126).
130. Rossiter and Robertson, “Children’s Television Commercials” (see note 109).
131. Wechsler, “This Lesson Is Brought to You” (see note 17).
132. Institute of Medicine, Food Marketing to Children and Youth (see note 4).
133. Government Accounting Office, “Public Service Announcement Campaigns: Activities and Financial
Obligations for Seven Federal Departments,” United States Government Accountability Office Report
to Congressional Committees (Washington, D.C.: 2000); M. Story and S. French, “Food Advertising and
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134. J. Di Bona and others, “Commercialism in North Carolina High Schools: A Survey of Principals’ Perceptions,” Peabody Journal of Education 78, no. 2 (2003): 41–62.
135. C. Atkinson, “Channel One Hits Bump, Losing Ads and Top Exec,” Advertising Age 76, no. 11 (2005):
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136. P. Wechsler, “This Lesson Is Brought to You” (see note 17).
137. Atkinson, “Channel One Hits Bump” (see note 135); Government Accounting Office, “Public Service
Announcement Campaigns” (see note 133); Institute of Medicine, Food Marketing to Children and Youth
(see note 4).
138. K. T. Wulfemeyer and B. Mueller,” Channel One and Commercials in Classrooms: Advertising Content
Aimed at Students,” Journalism Quarterly 69, no. 3 (1992): 724–42.
139. Government Accounting Office, “Public Service Announcement Campaigns” (see note 133); Story and
French, “Food Advertising and Marketing Directed at Children and Adolescents in the U.S.” (see note 133).
140. Atkinson, “Channel One Hits Bump” (see note 135).
141. Wulfemeyer and Mueller, “Channel One and Commercials in Classrooms: Advertising Content Aimed at
Students” (see note 138).
142. B. S. Greenberg and J. E. Brand, “Television News and Advertising in Schools: The ‘Channel One’ Controversy,” Journal of Communication 43, no. 1 (1993): 143–51.
23 2
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143. Atkinson, “Channel One Hits Bump” (see note 135).
144. Government Accounting Office, “Public Service Announcement Campaigns” (see note 133).
145. M. Richtel, “Despite Privacy Concerns, Free PC’s Attract Consumers and Schools,” The New York Times,
February 25, 1999, http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html (retrieved July 25, 2007).
146. Government Accounting Office, “Public Service Announcement Campaigns” (see note 133).
147. M. Richtel, “Despite Privacy Concerns” (see note 145).
148. Institute of Medicine, Food Marketing to Children and Youth (see note 4).
149. Ibid.
150. Story and French, “Food Advertising and Marketing Directed at Children and Adolescents in the U.S.”
(see note 133).
151. Ibid.
152. S. B. Austin and others, “Clustering of Fast-Food Restaurants around Schools: A Novel Application of
Spatial Statistics to the Study of Food Environments,” American Journal of Public Health 95, no. 9 (2005):
1575–81.
153. Government Accounting Office, “Public Service Announcement Campaigns” (see note 133).
154. Institute of Medicine, Food Marketing to Children and Youth (see note 4); M. Vallianatos, Healthy School
Food Policies: A Checklist, Working Paper (Los Angeles, Calif.: Center for Food and Justice, Urban
and Environmental Policy Institute). [Online]. Available: http://departments.oxy.edu/uepi/cfj/resources/
healthy_school_food_policies_05.pdf [accessed July 25, 2007].
155. Institute of Medicine, Food Marketing to Children and Youth (see note 4).
156. Story and French, “Food Advertising and Marketing Directed at Children and Adolescents in the U.S.”
(see note 133).
157. Nathanson and Chakroff, “Parent and School Interventions: Mediation and Media Literacy” (see note 126).
158. D. F. Roberts and others, “Developing Discriminating Consumers,” Journal of Communication 30 (1980):
229–31.
159. E. W. Austin and K. K. Johnson, “Effects of General and Alcohol-Specific Media Literacy Training on
Children’s Decision-Making about Alcohol,” Journal of Health Communication 2 (1997): 12–42.
160. Federal Communications Commission, “Children’s Television Programs: Report and Policy Statement”
(see note 30).
161. Calvert, Children’s Journeys through the Information Age (see note 38).
162. Ibid.
163. M. Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (New York: Little, Brown,
and Company, 2000).
164. Calvert, Children’s Journeys through the Information Age (see note 38); E. Wartella, A. G. Caplovitz, and
J. H. Lee, “From Baby Einstein to Leapfrog, from Doom to the Sims, from Instant Messaging to Internet
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Chat Rooms: Public Interest in the Role of Interactive Media in Children’s Lives,” Social Policy Report
18, no. 4 (2004): 3–19.
165. K. Montgomery and A. Pasnik, Web of Deception: Threats to Children from Online Marketing (Washington, D.C.: Center for Media Education, 1996).
166. Montgomery, “Digital Kids” (see note 32); E. Wartella, J. Lee, and A. Caplovitz, “Children and Interactive
Media: A Compendium of Current Research and Directions for the Future,” Retrieved March 18, 2007,
from www.digital-kids.net.
167. Wartella, Caplovitz, and Lee, “From Baby Einstein to Leapfrog” (see note 164).
168. J. Turow, “Family Boundaries, Commercialism, and the Internet: A Framework for Research,” Journal of
Applied Developmental Psychology 22, no. 1 (2001): 73–86.
169. Wartella, Lee, and Caplovitz, “Children and Interactive Media: A Compendium of Current Research and
Directions for the Future” (see note 166).
170. Cohen, “Spies among Us” (see note 31); M. W. Thompson and J. H. Beales III, “Spyware.” Testimony
before the Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection of the Committee on Energy
and Commerce, United States House of Representatives, Washington, D.C. Retrieved February 6, 2005,
from http://ftc.gov/os/testimony/108hearings.htm.
171. Thompson and Beales, “Spyware” (see note 170).
172. Institute of Medicine, Food Marketing to Children and Youth (see note 4), pp. 344–46.
173. D. Thornburgh and H. S. Lin, eds., Youth, Pornography, and the Internet (Washington, D.C.: National
Academies Press, 2002).
23 4
T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
Children’s Media Policy
Children’s Media Policy
Amy B. Jordan
Summary
Amy Jordan addresses the need to balance the media industry’s potentially important contributions to the healthy development of America’s children against the consequences of excessive
and age-inappropriate media exposure.
Much of the philosophical tension regarding how much say the government should have about
media content and delivery stems from the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment protection
against government interference in free speech, including commercial speech. Courts, Jordan
says, have repeatedly had to weigh the rights of commercial entities to say what they please
against the need to protect vulnerable citizens such as children. This balancing act is complicated even further, she says, because many government regulations apply only to broadcast television and not to non-broadcast media such as the Internet or cable television, though Congress
has addressed the need to protect children’s privacy online.
The need to protect both free speech and children has given rise to a fluid media policy mix of
federal mandates and industry self-regulation. Jordan describes the role of the three branches
of the federal government in formulating and implementing media policy. She also notes the
jockeying for influence in policymaking by industry lobbies, child advocacy groups, and academic researchers. The media industry itself, says Jordan, is spurred to self-regulation when
public disapproval grows severe enough to raise the possibility of new government action.
Jordan surveys a range of government and industry actions, from legislatively required parental
monitoring tools, such as the V-Chip blocking device on television sets, to the voluntary industry ratings systems governing television, movies, and video games, to voluntary social website
disclosures to outright government bans, such as indecency and child privacy information collection. She considers the success of these efforts in limiting children’s exposure to damaging
content and in improving parents’ ability to supervise their children’s media use.
Jordan concludes by considering the relevance and efficacy of today’s media policy given the
increasingly rapid pace of technological change. The need for research in informing and evaluating media policy, she says, has never been greater.
www.futureofchildren.org
Amy B. Jordan is director of the Media and the Developing Child sector of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of
Pennsylvania. She thanks Jordan Grossman and Katlin Esposito for research assistance, Angela Campbell for comments on an earlier
version of this manuscript, and the participants at the Future of Children conference for their input and ideas.
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Amy B. Jordan
n American society, freedom of
speech sometimes comes into conflict
with the need to protect children. On
the one hand, Americans highly value
the First Amendment, which guarantees media makers’ right to free speech. On
the other hand, Americans recognize that
exposure to much of this protected speech—
for example, graphic sex or gratuitous violence
—can be detrimental to children’s psychological, social, and physical well-being. In this
article, I consider the national effort to
balance media rights and responsibilities to
protect the healthy development of children.
I lay out the impetus for and philosophical
underpinning of government media policies
and industry self-regulation and consider the
success of these efforts both in limiting
children’s exposure to harmful content and in
improving parents’ ability to supervise
children’s experience with media. I conclude
by showing how the rapid evolution of media
technology may affect media policymaking
and by highlighting the important role of
research in designing, implementing, and
evaluating media policy for children.
Government Action
Government media policymakers are in the
unenviable position of walking the fine (and
often moving) line between the best interests
of a capitalist, speech-protected society and
the best interests of the vulnerable, developing child. Unlike many other public policy
debates, issues related to children and media
do not typically have clear partisan boundaries. A liberal Democrat is as likely as a conservative Republican to participate in public
discourse about the problems and potential
of media. For example, Senators Hillary
Clinton (D-N.Y.), Joseph Lieberman (Ind.Conn.), and Samuel Brownback (R-Kan.)
recently cosponsored the Children and
Media Research Advancement Act (CAMRA)
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T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
to authorize new funding to build a comprehensive, long-term research program to study
the effects of media on children, and their
bill received unanimous Senate approval.1
Public action regarding media policy has several triggers. One is an upwelling of serious
public concern about the media that comes to
the attention of lawmakers—as, for example,
when a national poll reveals that parents
are worried about too much violence on
television.2 Another is the discovery of new
scientific evidence suggesting a direct causal
connection between the media and a negative
outcome—as, for example, when a long-term
study finds that heavy television viewing in
the preschool years leads to greater aggression in the teenage years.3 Yet another is a
focusing event that creates a greater sense
of urgency for change—as, for example, the
massacre at Columbine High School that
some commentators believed was linked to
obsessive video game playing.4
Who Shapes Government Policy?
Once a problem gains lawmakers’ full
attention, it tends to generate study groups,
congressional hearings, and new legislation
for regulation or research funding. All these
steps involve a community of key stakeholders—academic researchers, child advocates,
and industry lobbyists, among others—who
work with or against policymakers as they
hammer out the fine points of the legislative
agenda.
The pluralist tradition of policymaking is
marked by sharp competition for influence by
interest groups (including industry and
advocacy groups as well as governing
philosophies).5 As the scope, reach, and
impact of the media have grown over recent
decades, so too has the number of mediarelated pressure groups in society. Action for
Children’s Media Policy
Children’s Television, a grassroots advocacy
group headed by a Boston mother, exerted
influence on Congress and the Federal
Communications Commission (FCC) for
several decades before it disbanded with its
“mission accomplished” in the late 1990s.6
More recently, the conservative Parents
Television Council has been a key influence
on legislation to increase fines for broadcast
indecency through its regular reports of sex,
violence, and profanity in television and its
frequent complaints filed with the FCC.7
Industry lobbying groups, including the
National Association of Broadcasters, provide
a countervailing force against advocacy
groups, touting the sufficiency of their own
efforts at self-regulation and advocating for
their First Amendment right not to have the
government interfere with their speech—a
constitutional guarantee that increasingly
protects not only political or religious speech,
but also speech delivered by commercial
entities.8 In the midst of this give and take,
policy is made.
Within the U.S. government itself, all three
branches of government shape media policy.
Presidential administrations can and do take
up children’s media issues by appointing likeminded executive agency heads or by using
the bully pulpit to express their expectations
or concerns. President Ronald Reagan, for
example, appointed FCC Chair Mark Fowler,
who, reflecting the Reagan doctrine of a
laissez-faire government, shifted its regulatory philosophy and dropped proposals that
had been in the works for years that would
have required broadcasters to provide more
educational programming for children.9 A
decade later, President Bill Clinton hosted
a White House Summit on Children and
Media, and his FCC chair, Reed Hundt,
became a critical force in defining the broadcasters’ public interest obligations under the
Children’s Television Act of 1990, in part
by reinstating the policies eliminated under
President Reagan.10
The judicial branch shapes media policy by
determining the constitutionality of media
law. Most challenges come on the grounds
that the regulation violates the First Amendment rights of media makers. In the United
States, the First Amendment prohibits the
federal legislature from making laws that
infringe on freedom of speech or freedom
of the press. In 1978, for example, the U.S.
Supreme Court affirmed the FCC’s authority
to restrict the public broadcast of indecent
language. In this case, the FCC had fined
Pacifica Foundation for the radio broadcast
of George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words”
routine, which contained sexual and excretory words that the FCC considered “patently
offensive.” 11 Today’s courts have also been
asked to weigh in on FCC fine policies. In
2007, for example, the Court of Appeals for
the Second Circuit in New York determined
that FCC fines for “fleeting expletives” levied
against FOX television were “arbitrary and
capricious” and sent the case back to the
commission saying that the indecency test is
undefined and constitutionally vague.12 Thus,
interpretations and reinterpretations of the
constitutionality of media policy—in particular, whether federal policy infringes upon free
speech—occur with regularity in a society
that grapples with how best to navigate the
best interests of its citizens.
The work of legislating media policy cuts
across numerous congressional committees,
including the Senate Subcommittee on
Science, Technology, and Innovation; the
Senate Transportation Committee; and the
House Subcommittee on Telecommunications
and the Internet. Often, too, appropriations
committees, which allocate funds to support
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Table 1. Federal Children’s Media Policies
Policy title
Source
Action
Children’s Television Act of 1990
Passed by Congress
Mandates educational television for children on commercial broadcast stations.
Implemented by the FCC
Reestablishes commercial time restrictions.
Bans host selling.
Three-Hour Rule (1997)
FCC processing guideline
MM Docket No. 93-48
Expects three hours a week of educational programming
to qualify for expedited license renewal.
Provides guidelines for allowable air times, length, on-air
identification. Also clarifies the definition of educational
children’s programming.
Telecommunications Act of 1996
Passed by Congress
Requires television sets to include a “V-Chip” to block
programs with content parents find objectionable.
Requires industry to design a ratings system to work in
conjunction with the device.
Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act
(2006)
Passed by Congress
Communications Decency Act
(1996)
Passed by Congress
Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act
(1998)
Implemented by the FTC
Implemented by the FCC
Implemented by the FCC
authorized programs, reflect the federal
government’s implicit role in shaping media
culture—for example, by subsidizing the
Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which
provides funding to Public Broadcasting
Service (PBS) and National Public Radio
(NPR) stations, or by providing new grants for
studying the effect of media on children, such
as the Children and Media Research
Advancement Act.
Table 1 outlines current federal media policies, including both congressionally enacted
laws and federal agency processing guidelines
related to children and media. The policies
in place today reflect a legislative philosophy
in which rulemaking focuses primarily on
the medium (for example, television or the
Internet) as a means of regulating content
(for example, profanity or explicit sex). The
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T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
Stations may be penalized $325,000 for airing “patently
offensive” content (sexual or excretory words) between
6 a.m. and 10 p.m.
Though much of the act has been overturned, current
law imposes criminal sanctions on those who knowingly
transmit obscene materials to children under eighteen;
Section 230 protects websites from defamation and
violation of privacy lawsuits when the material is created
by others.
Requires operators of websites and online services
directed to children or heavily used by children under
age thirteen to obtain verifiable parental consent and
keep confidential information disclosed from parents.
Telecommunications Act of 1996, the massive
overhaul of the 1934 Communications Act,
structures policy on a medium-by-medium
basis in much the same way as the original
law.13 For example, broadcast media (stations
such as ABC and CBS, which air their programs over the nation’s free public airwaves)
do not enjoy the same First Amendment
protections as the Internet or even cable
television. The reason: the limited broadcast
spectrum historically meant that the federal
government provides licenses for stations
to use a particular part of the spectrum to
avoid signal confusion and disruption.14
Until recently, the only way for a television
or radio signal to reach household receivers
was through what is known as the analogue
spectrum—a limited resource that federal
policy determined could not be “owned” but
instead “leased” from the government. As
Children’s Media Policy
a result, broadcasters apply for and receive
licenses on the basis that they will “serve the
public interest, convenience, and necessity”
and be subject to governmental oversight.
Who Implements Media Policy?
Once laws are passed by Congress, the responsibility for implementing and enforcing them
is given to independent federal oversight agencies. The two key regulatory bodies for media
policy are the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Both agencies are made of up
five commissioners nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Only three
commissioners may be members of the same
political party (usually that of the president
who nominates them), and one commissioner
serves as chairperson. The FCC has jurisdiction over policies related to the media industry, including restrictions on content and the
structure of ownership. The FTC is charged
with consumer protection, for example, ensuring that advertising and marketing practices
are not harmful or misleading.
Federal Communications Commission
As of this writing, the Federal Communications Commission is charged with implementing several key federal media policies related
to children—most notably, the regulations
involving children’s television and broadcast
indecency.
After a decade when the landscape of children’s television became increasingly bleak
and commercialized, Congress unanimously
passed the Children’s Television Act (CTA)
of 1990.15 The CTA reestablished the commercial time limits applicable to children’s
programming that had been eliminated during the Reagan administration. Stations are
fined by the FCC if their advertising during
children’s television programming exceeds
10.5 minutes an hour on weekends and 12
minutes an hour on weekdays. The CTA also
required broadcast stations, including ABC,
CBS, and NBC, to increase significantly their
educational offerings for children. In the
years following implementation of the CTA,
most stations did report airing educational
programming for children. But an analysis by
Dale Kunkel and Julie Canepa published in
1994 revealed that broadcasters were making
dubious claims about the educational value
of their programs, saying, for example, that
the cartoon show The Jetsons was educational because it taught children about the
future.16 In addition, an examination of the
1995–96 broadcast season by the Annenberg
Public Policy Center showed that few of the
truly educational programs (such as Bill Nye,
the Science Guy) were being aired at times
when children were likely to be awake and
in the audience (they were being shown, for
example, at 5 a.m. on a Saturday).17
By 1996, the political climate was ripe for
reform. In their bid for reelection, Bill
Clinton and Al Gore made children’s media
policy an agenda item. Simultaneously, the
television industry was undergoing significant
economic restructuring, and government
agencies were carefully watching to see if
media companies would continue to willingly
“serve the public interest” while morphing
into multimedia, mega-conglomerates.
Though negotiations between policymakers,
advocates, academics, and the industry were
tense, all parties ultimately agreed to a “clarification” of the CTA of 1990, which set three
hours as the minimum amount of educational
programming to be aired by commercial
broadcasters each week.18 The industry, wanting to remain in the good graces of the FCC,
promised not to challenge on First Amendment grounds the constitutionality of the
so-called Three-Hour Rule.
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Amy B. Jordan
Strictly speaking, the Three-Hour Rule is
not a rule but a processing guideline that
the FCC can use in determining whether a
station’s license should be renewed.19 Airing
three hours a week of educational programs
guarantees stations an expedited review of
their license renewal application. Because
children’s educational programming is
essentially the only public interest obligation
checked by the FCC, adhering to the mandate virtually guarantees the rubber stamping
of the application for license renewal. Thus,
the federal policy provides strong economic
incentives to adhere to FCC guidelines while
maintaining the literal boundaries of the First
Amendment by not intervening directly in
content matters.
The FCC also has the legal jurisdiction to
enforce restrictions on indecent material on
network broadcasting, including radio and
television. Obscene material is not allowed at
all on broadcast stations, and profanity and
indecency are restricted to the hours of 10
p.m. until 6 a.m., when children are less likely
to be in the audience.20 Currently, the FCC
can penalize a broadcast station a maximum
of $325,000 per incident for airing “patently
offensive” content (articulated as “sexual” or
“excretory” content). The penalties can be
applied to multiple instances of indecency in
a single show, potentially pushing the fines
into the millions of dollars.21
The current indecency regulations, however,
do not apply to non-broadcast media such as
the Internet or cable television because they
are not part of the limited spectrum owned
and regulated by the U.S. government.22
(That is, they do not reach audiences through
the nation’s free airwaves.) Though the Communications Decency Act (CDA), passed by
Congress in 1996, imposes criminal sanctions
on anyone who transmits obscene materials
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T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
to people known to be under age eighteen,
provisions in the law regulating indecent content were invalidated almost immediately by
the Supreme Court.23 (Recent congressional
attempts to protect children from Internet
pornography, such as the Children’s Online
Protection Act of 1998, have similarly been
struck down.24) A key provision of the CDA
has remained in place, however. Section 230
of the CDA protects websites from defamation and violation of privacy lawsuits when
the material is created by others, a protection
that non-Internet publishers do not enjoy.25
From these rulings, it would appear that the
courts view the Internet more as a “common
carrier” (like FedEx or the phone company)
and less as a medium (like newspapers or
television).26
The Federal Trade Commission
The primary responsibility of the Federal
Trade Commission is consumer protection.
The FTC has often acted to protect the
interests of the child consumer, primarily
by regulating (or threatening to regulate)
advertising content. Advertising is protected
as free speech, however, and the FTC must
restrict its regulatory activities to ad content
that is clearly harmful to the developing child
or that exploits the vulnerabilities of a lesssophisticated audience.27 The FTC’s efforts to
broaden its oversight have not been regarded
favorably by Congress. In the 1970s, the FTC
undertook a multi-year deliberation to consider the possible need for government intervention to regulate advertising directed at
children. At the time, scientists were increasingly concerned about sugar consumption and
dental caries, and television was the primary
medium through which children learned
about sugary foods and beverages. These
health concerns, combined with the social
concern that young children could not tell the
difference between advertising and program
Children’s Media Policy
content, led the FTC to propose a rulemaking process that would either restrict or ban
advertising to children. The proposal raised
the hackles of many lawmakers, even leading
some to suggest disbanding the agency. As
reported by an Institute of Medicine study,
“Congress subsequently objected to intrusions
on private-sector advertising and pressured
the FTC to withdraw its proposed rule and to
conclude that evidence of adverse effects of
advertising on children was inconclusive.” 28
Today, the FTC hosts seminars and writes
fact-finding reports, but broad regulatory
debates take place in other arenas.
Industry Self-Regulation
Media companies tend to be
on the alert for signs of public disapproval and potential
new federal actions. If they
see new policymaking on the
horizon, they will propose
new self-regulatory measures.
Ratings
Nowhere is self-regulation more evident than
in the voluntary ratings that media makers
provide for their products. Movies, television,
video and computer games, and music each
provide the public with an indication of the
content or age appropriateness, or both, of its
titles for children. Industry rating efforts have
virtually always followed episodes of heightened public concern, with government threatening to take action if the industry does not.
Each medium has handled the application of
ratings differently, however, with television
and music producers determining ratings
and film and video and computer game titles
submitting to an independent but industryfunded board. Their codes and symbols differ
too, leading one scholar to describe the result
as “alphabet soup” 32 and many advocates to
call for a uniform ratings system.33
The 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) was the result of the
efforts of advocacy groups, including the
Center for Media Education, that were
alarmed by the extent to which websites had
been collecting information about their child
users.29 The law, which addressed privacy and
security risks created when children under
thirteen years of age are online, is enforced
by the FTC. As noted in table 1, COPPA
imposes requirements on operators of websites and online services directed to children,
as well as other operators who knowingly
collect personal information from children.
Websites that do not comply with COPPA are
fined by the FTC.30
Signs of renewed governmental regulatory
activity often stir the industry to preemptive
self-censorship. Media companies are loathe
to risk FTC or FCC action and certainly
do not want to jeopardize their broadcast
licenses. Yet they also do not want the government to become involved in censoring
their content. As a result, they tend to be on
the alert for signs of public disapproval and
potential new federal actions. If they see
new policymaking on the horizon, they will
propose new self-regulatory measures. Some
scholars call this dynamic “regulation by
raised eyebrow.” 31
Movie ratings came first, in 1968, after
dramatic social upheavals, including the
sexual revolution, Vietnam War protests,
and assassinations of U.S. public figures,
led policymakers and the larger public to
scrutinize the contribution of media to the
problems of the culture.34 The structure of
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Amy B. Jordan
Table 2. Ratings for Motion Pictures and Television
Motion pictures
Television
G: general audience
G: general audience
PG: parental guidance suggested
TV-Y: all children
PG-13: parents strongly cautioned
TV-Y7: directed to older children
R: restricted, under seventeen requires accompanying parent
or adult guardian
TV-14: parental guidance suggested
NC-17: no one seventeen and under admitted
TV-MA: mature audience only
Sources: www.mpaa.org and www.tvguidelines.org.
the Motion Picture Association of America’s
(MPAA) age-based ratings has been modified
over the years, with greater distinctions made
and ratings justifications provided. During
the 1980s and 1990s, the ratings PG-13 and
NC-17 were added to refine the four basic
age recommendations of G (for a general
audience), PG (for parental guidance suggested), R (for restricted), and X (for no one
under seventeen admitted), eliminating the
need for the X rating.
More recently, ratings have appeared on television shows other than news and sports. With
the passage of the Telecommunications Act of
1996, the government required the industry
to devise a ratings system or let the government provide one for it. One justification for
the ratings was that parents needed a classification system to program the V-Chip blocking
device on television sets mandated by the
1996 act.35 Table 2 provides an overview of
the age-based ratings for film and television.
Pressure from advocacy groups has led most
television stations to add content descriptors
to the age-ratings. These content ratings
include markers for fantasy violence on
children’s programs (FV), sexual content (S),
violent content (V), harsh language (L), and
sexual dialogue (D). The film industry also
provides content descriptors. Examples
include “crude and sexual humor,” “drug
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T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
references,” and “comic violence.” The 2005
Warner Bros. Pictures’ movie Harry Potter
and the Goblet of Fire, for example, was rated
PG-13 “for sequences of fantasy violence and
frightening images.”36
Video and computer games also are packaged to show their ratings. Similar to the film
industry ratings board, the gaming industry
examines titles that are voluntarily submitted
and rates them for both age and content (see
table 3).
Table 3. Computer and Video Game Ratings
EC (Early Childhood): contains content that may be suitable for
ages three and older. Contains no material that parents would
find inappropriate.
E (Everyone): contains content that may be suitable for ages six
and older. Titles in this category may contain minimal cartoon,
fantasy, or mild violence or infrequent use of mild language, or
both.
E10+ (Everyone 10 and Older): contains content that may
be suitable for ages ten and older. Titles in this category may
contain more cartoon, fantasy, or mild violence; mild language;
and minimal suggestive themes.
T (Teen): contains content that may be suitable for ages
thirteen and older. Titles in this category may contain violence,
suggestive themes, crude humor, minimal blood, simulated
gambling, or infrequent use of strong language.
M (Mature): contains content that may be suitable for persons
ages seventeen and older. Titles in this category may contain
intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content, or strong
language.
AO (Adults Only): contains content that should only be played
by persons ages eighteen and older. Titles in this category may
include prolonged scenes of intense violence, graphic sexual
content, and nudity.
Source: www.esrb.org.
Children’s Media Policy
During the late 1990s, the Parents’ Music
Resource Center admonished the music
industry for its increasingly violent, sexual,
and misogynistic lyrics. The group, made up
primarily of wives of prominent Washington
lawmakers led by Tipper Gore, argued that
such lyrics had negative effects on the
psychological well-being of listeners.37 After a
series of Senate hearings and an extensive
public debate, which weighed the well-being
of children against the free-speech rights of
musicians, the Recording Industry Association of America agreed to ask its members to
participate voluntarily in a system of labeling
their recordings and offering less explicit
versions of lyrics alongside the original
versions (see www.riaa.org). Today, the
Parental Advisory Label system alerts parents
with a warning label, voluntarily placed on
recordings by producers and distributors.
Advertising Self-Regulation
Over the years, the federal government has
considered and reconsidered the notion of
regulating advertising directed at children
(see table 1). Today just two clear advertising
laws pertaining specifically to children are
in place for broadcast and cable television:
commercial time limits during children’s
television shows and a ban on “host selling,”
which prohibits characters from a television
show from appearing in commercials that air
adjacent to or during that show.38 Though
the Federal Trade Commission examines
complaints of deceptive or harmful advertising, most restraints on advertising to children
come from within the industry, through an
association funded by commercial companies. The Children’s Advertising Review Unit
(CARU) of the Council of Better Business
Bureaus provides guidelines and evaluates
consumer complaints.39 For example, CARU
guidelines say, “Advertisements should
not convey to children that possession of a
product will result in greater acceptance by
peers or that lack of a product will result in
less acceptance by peers.” Advertisers are
also admonished not to advertise products
“that pose safety risks to them, i.e., drugs
and dietary supplements, alcohol, products
Table 4. Food Company Pledges for Self-Regulation, Summer 2007
Company
Pledge highlights
Cadbury Adams, USA, LLC
Cease advertising and product placement of Bubblicious brand of gum to children under
twelve
Campbell’s Soup
Advertise only products that are “sound” food choices, including lower-sodium soups and
portion-controlled packages of crackers
Coca-Cola North America
No advertising to children under twelve; limit beverages in schools to water, 100 percent
juice, and milk for elementary and middle school students
General Mills
Advertise only Health Dietary Choices (12 grams or less of sugar per serving) to children
under twelve; license Nickelodeon characters (SpongeBob SquarePants, Dora the Explorer) to
frozen and canned vegetables
Hershey Company
No in-school advertising or brand licensing for use on educational materials; no television
advertising aimed at children under twelve
McDonald’s USA, LLC
Advertising directed at children under twelve will be limited only to meals with less than 600
calories (for example, the four-piece chicken nugget meal)
Unilever
No advertising to children under age six; advertising to children aged six to twelve will meet
criteria for “Eat Smart-Drink Smart” logo
Kraft Foods
No advertising to children under six, advertising of “Sensible Solution” products to children
aged six to eleven
Source: Children’s Advertising Review Unit, Council of Better Business Bureaus.
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Amy B. Jordan
labeled, ‘Keep out of the reach of children.’”
Mass media marketing to children of “junk
food” (foods high in calories and low in
nutrition) has come under increasing scrutiny
by lawmakers and advocates in light of the
sharp uptick in childhood obesity rates in
America. Several academic studies have
linked exposure to unhealthful food advertising with childhood overweight.40 And content
analyses reveal the ubiquity of junk food
advertising on the programs watched by and
the websites frequented by children.41 In
2007, Congress and the FCC formed a joint
task force on marketing and childhood
obesity. With new regulatory action looming,
more than a dozen of the nation’s largest food
manufacturers pledged to limit junk food
marketing and promote healthy lifestyles
(see table 4).
Similarly, in 2007, the Motion Picture
Association of America announced that it
would consider smoking when it rates movies.
“Depictions that glamorize smoking or
movies that feature pervasive smoking
outside of an historic or other mitigating
context” may lead to a higher rating by the
industry panel that decides whether a film
deserves a G, a PG, a PG-13, or an R.42
Smoking joined violence, sex, profanity, and
drug use as a red flag used by raters to judge
the age-appropriateness of films. Why
smoking? Why now? The historic “Master
Settlement” of 1998 required the big tobacco
companies such as R. J. Reynolds and Phillip
Morris to pay hundreds of billions of dollars
to states to spend on prevention programs. It
also prohibited tobacco companies from
targeting youth with ads, promotions, and
marketing, such as paid-for product placements on TV and in movies. But researchers
tracking the prevalence of smoking in film
since 1998 found that tobacco use went up
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T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
after the settlement by 50 percent and began
pressuring Congress to act.43 Rather than
have to respond to government inquiry and
sanction, the MPAA decided to take preemptive action.
Protecting Children from Online Predators
Though no one knows for certain the extent
to which children are sexually harassed
or exposed to sexual predators online, the
increasing popularity of social networking
sites such as MySpace and Facebook has
raised public and lawmaker concerns about
children’s Internet-related vulnerabilities. In
2007, Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and
Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) introduced the
Keeping the Internet Devoid of Sexual Predators Act of 2007, known as the KIDS Act,
which would require convicted sex offenders
to submit e-mail addresses, instant message
addresses, or other identifying Internet information to law enforcement to be placed on
the National Sex Offender Registry.44 Within
months of the bill’s announcement, MySpace
agreed to turn over to state attorneys general
the names of convicted sex offenders who
had been using the site.45
Successes and Failures of Media
Policy for Children
Judgments about the success or failure of
media policy to empower parents to more
effectively direct children’s media use or limit
exposure to potentially harmful content
depend, in large part, on where one stands.
Evaluations of the implementation of federal
mandates suggest that the media industry will
follow the letter of the law. In the case of
television, for example, television manufacturers began including the computer V-Chip
device in television sets sold after January
2000 to comply with the Telecommunications
Act of 1996. Programmers provided ratings
information for television shows to comply
Children’s Media Policy
with the V-Chip mandate. Broadcast networks
listed the minimum three hours a week of
educational programming for children in
their FCC filings under the Three-Hour
Rule. But did children’s exposure to the “bad”
of television decrease, and did their viewing
of the “good” of television increase? Research
says “not really.”
Some observers argue that media companies
live up to the letter but not the spirit of the
law.46 As a result, the usefulness of federal
regulations has been widely viewed as limited
in the current media environment. A study
conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy
Center in the year following implementation
of the V-Chip mandate found that less than
10 percent of parents consistently used the
device, even when they were shown how to
use it.47 Why? Post-experiment interviews
with mothers revealed that many found the
device difficult to locate (it was buried five
menus into the RCA model provided) and
confusing to program. Research at the Kaiser
Family Foundation also suggests that the
ratings are too complex to be effective for parents. A full decade after the V-Chip ratings
were introduced, only 11 percent of parents
know that “FV” is an indicator of violent
content in children’s programming.48
The Three-Hour Rule has also had limited
success in changing parents’ practices regarding the television set. A study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center conducted two
years after the mandate went into effect found
that few parents knew that broadcasters were
airing educational and informational programming for children.49 Two critical obstacles
appeared to block parental awareness. First,
the programs considered educational by the
broadcasters (for example, Saved by the Bell,
a comedy about high school teens) were not
considered educational by parents, who held a
more traditional conception of “educational.”
Second, parents did not recognize or understand the on-air symbol “E/I” used by broadcasters to denote educational programming.
Several years of content analyses of the commercial broadcasters’ educational offerings
reveal that broadcasters continue to make
dubious claims about the educational value
of their programs. The Annenberg Public
Policy Center has consistently found that
roughly one in five of the commercial broadcasters’ “FCC-friendly” programs contains no
discernable educational lesson. In addition,
the majority of the network-provided programs are “pro-social”—they teach children
lessons such as loyalty, honesty, and cooperation rather than teaching curriculum-based
lessons such as science, math, or reading.50
Though the Federal Communications Commission does not routinely screen programs
to make judgments about whether a program
is educational, it does act on complaints it
receives. In 2005, the United Church of Christ
raised concerns about commercial broadcast
network Univision’s educational programming lineup. After reviewing the complaint,
the FCC fined Univision affiliates $24 million
for listing rebroadcasts of steamy and violent
telenovelas (such as Complices al Rescate) as
educational programming for children.51
Broadcast networks have also been fined for
violating federal policy related to indecency.
The infamous case of Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” raised the concern of
lawmakers and catalyzed Congress to pass the
Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of
2005, which raised fines tenfold from $32,500
to $325,000 for violations. In its aftermath,
FOX stations were heavily fined when Nicole
Richie used profanity during the live broadcast of the Billboard Music Awards. A federal
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appeals court, however, found the rule
“arbitrary and capricious” and ordered the
FCC to reconsider its policy on “fleeting
expletives.”52 Indecency definitions, often
vague, have frustrated broadcasters and social
observers. George Carlin’s famous “Seven
Dirty Words” monologue highlights the
challenges in legislating language, as does the
inherent contradiction of punishing stations
for profanity, which virtually no studies have
shown to be harmful to children, but not for
gratuitous violence, which dozens, possibly
hundreds, of studies have shown to be
problematic.53 (Lawmakers and the Federal
Communications Commission have recently
argued that indecency definitions should
include graphic violence, particularly in the
wake of the blood, gore, and torture in
popular programs such as FOX’s 24.54)
The Federal Trade Commission, the agency
charged with enforcing the Children’s Online
Privacy Protection Act, has also found itself
in the position of fining flagrant violators of
the congressional mandate. In 2006, the FTC
fined the website Xanga $1 million, alleging
that the site collected personal information
from children whom it knew to be under thirteen years of age without having first obtained
the requisite verifiable parental consent.55
According to the FTC, the website stated
that children under thirteen were not allowed
to join. But despite this disclaimer, Xanga
allowed 1.7 million visitors who submitted
information indicating that they were younger
than thirteen to create accounts on the website. The FTC further alleged that Xanga had
not provided sufficient notice on the website
of how information regarding children would
be used, had failed to provide direct notice to
parents about the information it was collecting and how the information would be used,
and had failed to allow parents access to and
control over their children’s information.
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Violations of the industry’s self-regulatory
practices are less widely known, primarily
because investigations are not widely publicized by the industry-funded groups that
track them. Some academic research has
been conducted on the voluntary ratings
systems, however. In one study, researchers
recruited parents to rate the content of
computer and video games, movies, and
television programs.56 Raters felt that industry labels were “too lenient” when compared
with what parent coders would find suitable
for children. Nor are ratings well understood.
Perhaps because of ratings’ inconsistencies,
or perhaps because parents are not fully
aware of the information offered by media,
many parents do not consistently use the
ratings to guide their children. Though 78
percent of parents say they have used movie
ratings to direct children’s movie viewing,
only about half say they use music advisories,
video game ratings, and television program
ratings (54 percent, 52 percent, and 50
percent, respectively).57 Even among parents
who report using industry-provided ratings
and advisories, most do not find them to be
“very useful,” according to a Kaiser Family
Foundation survey.58
Advocacy groups such as Children Now, the
Center for Science in the Public Interest,
and the National Center for Missing and
Exploited Children keep a watchful eye. The
Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood,
for example, sent a letter to the Federal Trade
Commission decrying the heavy marketing
of the PG-13-rated movie Transformers to
young children through toy and food promotions. Citing CARU’s lack of disciplinary
action, it asked the FTC to intervene. And
unlike industry self-regulatory units, advocacy
groups have, as part of their mission, the
goal of informing the public about industry
misdeeds.59
Children’s Media Policy
New Media Forms and the Policy
Challenges They Present
A multitude of forces shape the contours of
children’s media policy in U.S. society. Regulatory efforts reflect societal beliefs about the
need to protect children from the harmful
effects of media and society’s strong interest
in respecting the First Amendment rights of
media makers. These tensions have tended to
result in a combination of laws and voluntary
self-regulation, which have the simultaneous
goals of encouraging the offerings of “good”
content, such as educational programming
and age-appropriate choices, and limiting
exposure to “bad” content, such as profanity
and online predators.
Of all the many challenges
facing policymakers who
use regulation to empower
parents and protect children,
perhaps the greatest is the
rapid evolution of media
technology.
Congressional mandates and self-regulation
must be implemented in good faith by the
industry and used effectively by the public to
have a serious impact on the media landscape. But, as noted, the system has kinks.
Research conducted by the Annenberg Public
Policy Center, the Kaiser Family Foundation,
advocacy groups, and even federal agencies
suggests that policies and guidelines often do
not produce dramatic changes in what is
available, in what children see, hear, or play,
or in how parents supervise. Some observers
might argue that simply holding the line on
content and access—keeping violence on
television from escalating, for example, or
keeping junk food ads from increasing—is a
sign of policy success. Others might argue
that technological solutions such as the
V-Chip were never intended to be used by all
homes but rather by a minority of mothers
and fathers who want to be able to monitor
carefully their children’s media exposure.
Of all the many challenges facing policymakers who use regulation to empower parents
and protect children, perhaps the greatest is
the rapid evolution of media technology.
Congressional leaders do not interact with
new media technologies in ways that provide
great insight into their capacity for good and
harm. In 2006, for example, Senator Ted
Stevens (R-Alaska), then chairman of the
Senate Committee on Commerce, Science,
and Transportation, was ridiculed on The
Daily Show with Jon Stewart and in other
public forums for trying to describe the
Internet as a “series of tubes” and comparing
the Web to a “dump truck.” The tubes and
truck metaphors seemed to highlight the
policymaker’s weak grasp of the technology
he was charged with overseeing.60
Though the Stevens gaffe may exaggerate the
disconnect between the “real world” and the
“Washington world,” it does highlight the
need to form clearer links between the
policymakers and the communities they are
meant to serve. It also suggests that parents,
too, have difficulty understanding the media
their children use. In a world where parents
ask their children to fix a misbehaving computer, program the television remote control,
or set up their cell phone ring tones, it is
understandable that parents would see
blocking filters like the V-Chip as a low hurdle
for children to clear and an ineffective tool for
managing media. It is not yet clear whether
today’s youthful media users will carry their
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technological savvy into their adult years,
when they can be more effective mediators
than their parents. In all likelihood, the media
will continue to evolve rapidly, and their
children will become the new “early adopters,”
leaving the generation gap as wide as ever.
the FCC 2004, the commission increased the
core programming benchmark (three hours a
week) for digital broadcasters “in a manner
roughly proportional to the increase in free
video programming offered by the broadcaster on multicast channels.” 63
Evolving media technologies also present a
new set of challenges for regulators who have,
historically, made policy on the basis of the
vehicle of delivery (for example, broadcast
television, movie, and newspaper). In the
new media environment, vehicles or “platforms” have converged, so that one can watch
episodes of Desperate Housewives on the
computer through the network’s website or
on an iPod through an iTunes download. Cell
phones, which are carried by most children
over the age of ten,61 allow Web access and
can receive spammed text messages, which
can be quite salacious or pornographic. The
distinctions that regulators make between
these platforms, particularly between television channels, are not necessarily made by
the viewing public. Do parents understand
why the FOX broadcast channel content is
held to a different (higher) set of standards
than its sister network FX on cable? Do they
care? Such questions may be overshadowed
by the larger First Amendment concerns that
might arise if policymakers begin to regulate
content instead of platforms, however.
A final challenge facing media policymakers
lies in the increasing personalization and
portability of technologies. In a society where
children have ownership over media devices
and determine the content that appears on
their screens, the “protecting the children”
argument for restricting mass media content
may be difficult to achieve from afar. Youth
today idiosyncratically select, edit, and create
their own media content to consume and
share, and they make few distinctions
between what is their media and what is adult
media. Indeed, there may one day be few
objects of regulation, as production becomes
decentralized and producers become increasingly anonymous. Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.
org) is a salient example of user-generated
content carried over the Internet and widely
used by the public with very light administrative oversight. Efforts to hold Internet service
providers (ISP) responsible for problematic
content are currently unenforceable under
section 230 of the Communications Decency
Act.
It is likely that in the decade to come,
regulators will need to rethink the original
premise of much of what has driven media
policy. Some observers have argued that
channel and outlet proliferation means that it
is no longer valid to justify government
regulation of broadcast media on the basis
that it is a “scarce resource.”62 Yet rulings
suggest that the public interest obligation to
children remains in place and, indeed, will be
extended. In a 2004 FCC ruling, known as
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Though the future of media policy in a
changing media environment is not yet clear,
the importance of unbiased and systemic
research has never been more so. Politicians
often rely on surveys of public opinion to justify taking action in a particular arena, in part
because the general public rarely weighs in
on media policy matters.64 Careful, objective
research into parents’ views of media, media
policy, and media practices is essential both
to inform policy debates and to aid in shaping
media policies that are useful to parents. This
Children’s Media Policy
means pilot testing potential legislation with
a representative sample of families to ensure
the understandability and usability of the
information and tools.
Once in place, media policies must be
routinely and objectively evaluated for
efficacy. Federal regulatory agencies are
neither mandated nor funded to routinely
assess how their policies are followed. In
2004 FCC chair Michael Powell wrote in a
New York Times op-ed, “We are not the
federal Bureau of Indecency. We do not
watch or listen to programs hoping to catch
purveyors of dirty broadcasts. Instead, we
rely on public complaints to point out
potentially indecent shows.” 65 Academic
researchers have a unique opportunity to
inform policymakers about the efficacy of
public policy. Ultimately, societal awareness
and use of media-related information and
technology and the effect of the policy on
media use by children and families are
distinct avenues of inquiry that promise to
contribute much to the discussion of whether
and how media policy can contribute to the
positive role of media in the developing
child’s life.
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Endnotes
1. States News Service, “Senator Clinton Announces Unanimous Senate Approval of Legislation to Study
Impact of Media on Children,” September 14, 2006.
2. Jeffrey D. Stanger and Natalia Gridina, “Media in the Home: Annual Survey of Parents and Children,”
Survey 5 (Philadelphia, Pa.: Annenberg Public Policy Center, University of Pennsylvania, 1999).
3. Jeffrey G. Johnson and others, “Television Viewing and Aggressive Behavior during Adolescence and
Adulthood,” Science 295, no. 5564 (2002): 2468.
4. Statement of Lydia Parnes, Director, Bureau of Consumer Protection, Federal Trade Commission, before
the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer
Protection, June 14, 2006.
5. Des Freedman, “Dynamics of Power in Contemporary Media Policy-Making,” Media, Culture & Society
28, no. 6 (2006): 907–23.
6. Ira Teinowitz, “Kids a Priority for This Crusader,” Advertising Age 71, no. 46 (2000): s64; Jon Lafayette,
“Charren’s Work Is Done, Maybe,” Electronic Media 15, no. 32 (1996): 4.
7. Kara Rowland, “TV Violence Found to Be More Frequent, Graphic: Group Decries Harm to Children,”
Washington Times, January 11, 2007, p. A1.
8. Dale Kunkel, “Policy Battles over Defining Children’s Educational Television,” Annals of the American
Academy of Political and Social Science 57 (1998): 39–53; Randolph Kline and others, “Beyond Advertising Controls: Influencing Junk-Food Marketing and Consumption with Policy Innovations Developed in
Tobacco Control,” ed 39 Loy. L.A. L. Rev. 603 (2006): 608–12.
9. Kunkel, “Policy Battles” (see note 8).
10. Ibid.
11. FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726 (1978). In this case, Pacifica challenged the FCC’s authority to
regulate broadcast content arguing that the content was not obscene and therefore its First Amendment
rights were violated. Justice Stevens wrote that the constitutional protection accorded to a communication
containing such patently offensive sexual and excretory language need not be the same in every context.
12. Kara Rowland, “Court Deals Serious Blow to FCC Expletive Policy,” Washington Times, June 5, 2007, p. A1.
13. Telecommunications Act of 1996, P.L. 104–104, 110 Stat. 56 (1996).
14. Matthew Bloom, “Pervasive New Media: Indecency Regulation and the End of the Distinction between
Broadcast Technology and Subscription-Based Media,” Yale Journal of Law and Technology 9 (2006–07): 109.
15. Kunkel, “Policy Battles” (see note 8).
16. Dale Kunkel and Julie Canepa, “Broadcasters’ License Renewal Claims Regarding Children’s Educational
Programming,” Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 38, no. 4 (1994): 397–416.
17. Amy Jordan, The State of Children’s Television: An Examination of Quantity, Quality, and Industry Beliefs,
Report 2 (Philadelphia, Pa.: Annenberg Public Policy Center, University of Pennsylvania, 1996).
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Children’s Media Policy
18. Amy Jordan, “The Three-Hour Rule and Educational Television for Children,” Popular Communication 2,
no. 2 (2004): 103–18.
19. John Sullivan and Amy Jordan, “Playing by the Rules: Impact and Implementation of Children’s Educational Television Regulations among Local Broadcasters,” Communication Law and Policy 4, no. 4 (1999):
483–511.
20. FCC v. Pacifica Foundation (see note 11).
21. Frank Ahrens, “The Price for On-Air Indecency Goes Up: Congress Approves Tenfold Increase in Fines
FCC Can Assess,” Washington Post, June 8, 2006, Financial section, Final edition, D01.
22. Bloom, “Pervasive New Media” (see note 14).
23. “Additional Developments—Constitutional Law: Nitke v. Gonzales,” Berkeley Technology Law Journal
Annual Review 21, no. 1 (2006): 585.
24. Mary Claire Dale, “U.S. Judge Blocks Law Criminalizing Web Porn That Reaches Kids,” The Associated
Press State & Local Wire, March 22, 2007, Business News section, Final edition.
25. David V. Richards, “Posting Personal Information on the Internet: A Case for Changing the Legal Regime
Created by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act,” Texas Law Review 85 (2007): 1321–22.
26. Ibid.; Adam Liptak, “The Ads Discriminate but Does the Web?” New York Times, March 5, 2006, section
4, column 1, Week in Review Desk, Ideas & Trends, p. 16; see also Bloom, “Pervasive New Media” (see
note 14).
27. Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. v. Public Service Commission, 447 U.S. 557 (1980).
28. Institute of Medicine, Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity? edited by J. M.
McGinnis, J. A. Grootman, and V. I. Kraak (Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, 2006), p. 30.
29. P.L. 105-277, div C, title XIII (Oct. 21, 1998) 112 Stat 2681-728, codified at 15 U.S.C. 6501-6506; Cory A.
Ciocchetti, “E-Commerce and Information Privacy: Privacy Policies as Personal Information Protectors,”
American Business Law Journal 44 (Spring 2007): 55.
30. See, for example, Xanga Case, as described by Jacqueline Klosek and Steven G. Charkoudian, “Social
Networking Website to Pay $1 Million Civil Penalty; Case Highlights Importance of COPPA Compliance,”
Mondaq Business Briefing, November 16, 2006.
31. Paul Starr, The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications (New York: Basic
Books, 2004), p. 30.
32. Bradley Greenberg, The Alphabet Soup of Television Program Ratings (Cresskill, N. J.: Hampton Press,
2001).
33. David Walsh and Douglas Gentile, “A Validity Test of Movie, Television, and Video Game Ratings,”
Pediatrics 107, no. 6 (2001): 1302–08.
34. Victor Strasburger and Barbara Wilson, Children, Adolescents, and the Media (Thousand Oaks, Calif.:
Sage Publications, 2002).
35. Telecommunications Act of 1996 (see note 13).
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Amy B. Jordan
36. www.filmratings.com.
37. Tipper Gore, Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society: What Parents Can Do to Protect their Children from
Sex and Violence in the Media (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1987).
38. Dale Kunkel and Ursula Goette, “Broadcasters’ Response to the Children’s Television Act,” Communication Law and Policy 2, no. 3 (1997): 289–308.
39. Guidelines can be found at www.caru.org/guidelines/index.asp. See pages 11 and 12.
40. D. L. Borzekowski and T. N. Robinson, “The 30-Second Effect: An Experiment Revealing the Impact of
Television Commercials on Food Preferences of Preschoolers,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association
101 (2001): 42–46. See also Institute of Medicine, Food Marketing to Children and Youth (see note 28).
41. Kristen Harrison and Amy Marske, “Nutritional Content of Foods Advertised during the Television
Programs Children Watch Most,” American Journal of Public Health 95, no. 9 (September 2005): 1568­–74;
Elizabeth S. Moore, “It’s Child’s Play: Advergaming and the Online Marketing of Food to Children” (Menlo
Park, Calif.: Kaiser Family Foundation, July 2006).
42. James Puzzanghera, “Hollywood Set to Filter On-Screen Smoking,” Los Angeles Times, May 11, 2007,
Home edition, Business Desk, Part A, P. 1.
43. www.smokefreemovies.ucsf.edu.
44. See McCain website announcement of bill: http://mccain.senate.gov/press_office/view_article.cfm?ID=853.
45. Sam Diaz, “A Multifront Battle against Web Predators,” Washington Post, July 31, 2007, Financial section,
D1.
46. Sullivan and Jordan, “Playing by the Rules” (see note 19).
47. R. Scantlin and A. Jordan, “Families’ Experiences with the V-Chip: An Exploratory Study,” Journal of
Family Communication 6, no. 2 (2006): 139–59.
48. Victoria Rideout, “Parents, Children, and Media,” Publication 7638 (Menlo Park, Calif.: The Kaiser
Family Foundation, June 2007), p. 8.
49. Kelly Schmitt, “The Three-Hour Rule: Is It Living Up to Expectations?” Report 30 (Philadelphia, Pa.:
Annenberg Public Policy Center, University of Pennsylvania, 1999).
50. Amy Jordan, “The Three-Hour Rule and Educational Television for Children” (see note 18).
51. Stephen Labaton, “Record Fine Expected for Univision,” New York Times, February 24, 2007, Business/
Financial Desk, C1.
52. Kara Rowland, “Court Deals Serious Blow to FCC Expletive Policy” (see note 12).
53. Brad J. Bushman and L. Rowell Heusmann, “Effects of Televised Violence on Aggression,” in The Handbook of Children and Media, edited by Dorothy and Jerome Singer (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 2001), pp. 223–54.
54. www.Rockefeller.senate.gov; www.fcc.gov.
55. Klosek and Charkoudian, “Social Networking Website to Pay $1 Million Civil Penalty” (see note 30).
25 2
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Children’s Media Policy
56. Walsh and Gentile, “A Validity Test of Movie, Television, and Video Game Ratings” (see note 33).
57. Rideout, “Parents, Children, and Media” (see note 48).
58. Ibid.
59. See, for example, www.commercialfreechildhood.org/pressreleases/transformersftcletter.pdf.
60. Frank Ahrens, “Protecting a Senator or Just Enforcing Copyright Law?” Washington Post, July 16, 2006,
Web Watch section, Final edition, F07.
61. Suzanne Martin and Linda Crane, “Communication Rules,” Harris Interactive Trends & Tudes 6, issue 2
(February 2007): 1.
62. Bloom, “Pervasive New Media” (see note 14).
63. Federal Communications Commission, “In the Matter of Children’s Television Obligations of Digital
Television Broadcasters” (MM Docket 00-167), pp. 4–5.
64. Freedman, “Dynamics of Power in Contemporary Media Policy-Making” (see note 5); Sullivan and Jordan,
“Playing by the Rules” (see note 19).
65. Michael Powell, FCC Chair, “Don’t Expect the Government to Be a V-Chip,” New York Times,
December 3, 2004, Editorial Desk, p. A29.
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25 4
T HE F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N
www.fu tu r e o f ch i l d r e n . o r g
A COLLABORATION OF THE WOODROW WILSON SCHOOL OF PUBLIC AND INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS AT
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY AND THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION